Take Light


Power means everything in Nigeria. Africa’s biggest oil producer has the world’s seventh largest population — the country is bursting with promise. Yet less than 50 per cent of Nigerians have access to electricity; those that do, receive a few hours at best. The irony of the situation may fuel the airwaves, but it’s felt on the ground.

In Port Harcourt, a major refining hub in the Niger Delta, blackouts are the norm. They cover this bustling city like soot from the regular gas flares, affecting daily life in ways that are annoying and, frequently, dangerous to human health.

No one knows the public’s frustration with the grid better than Martins, a devoted family man and electrical lineworker, who uses humour, tact, and a toolbelt to get through long days climbing utility poles and descending, more often than not, to angry mobs.

“I need to stay alive to work tomorrow.”

An electrocution survivor from his previous job, Martins now works for a private power company disconnecting delinquent customers and snipping illegal electric hookups. Deborah, his tough but cheerful colleague, is a “marketer,” whose job is collecting on unpaid bills. Her daughter wonders why she doesn’t quit. “It just has to get better and not worse.”

Martins’ and Deborah’s frontline experiences unite with other stories from the grid: a control-room supervisor at Nigeria’s largest power plant explains a grid collapse with the analogy of 10 people being given one plate of rice; a YouTube duo provides a comedic reality check on their popular show “Two Angry Men”; a hospital engineer MacGyvers scavenged parts to revive neglected solar panels and power up the morgue refrigerator. 

Without electricity, people turn to candles, kerosene, and other unreliable sources. They get burned or poisoned by carbon monoxide. Similarly, the nation’s economic health and progress are hampered by its chronic power problem.

“We need to make a cultural shift,” Amara Nwankpa, a Nigerian communications technologist, clean-energy activist, explains, laughing as the power flickers off. #LightUpNigeria, a massively successful social media campaign he co-founded in 2009, gave a “certain new power” to the average Nigerian—a context and outlet for expression.

“Development is a marathon, not a sprint,” Amara says. “You learn to celebrate your small victories.”