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Multimedia May 21, 2021

Episode #4 Mimi Alemayehou: Climate Justice Means Africa Needs More Energy Investment

The former OPIC, African Development Bank and Black Rhino Group official tells Katie & Rose why she’s frustrated…

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The former OPIC, African Development Bank and Black Rhino Group official tells Katie & Rose why she’s frustrated with energy and climate finance double standards for Africa, how she would advise President Biden on climate & Africa, & why it’s unethical to argue Africa must stay poor to reduce climate change impacts. Plus: Katie tells Rose why she’s Amped Up about Richard Branson’s Global Cooling Prize.



Mimi Alemayehou is the Senior Vice President for Public-Private Partnerships in the Humanitarian and Development Group at Mastercard. Previously, she was the Managing Director at Black Rhino Group, an infrastructure platform focused on the development and acquisition of energy and infrastructure projects across Africa. Before this, she held the position of Executive Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the United States Executive Director on the board of the African Development Bank (AfDB), and prior to AfDB she was Founder and Managing Partner of Trade Links, LLC, a development consulting firm.

Show Notes




ROSE:  I’m Rose Mutiso in London.


KATIE:  And I’m Katie Auth in Washington, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.


ROSE:  On today’s show, what’s getting in the way of energy growth and access in Africa?  We talk with Mimi Alemayehou, senior vice president for Public-Private Partnerships at Mastercard.  In the course of her career advancing African energy she’s been on all sides of the table–at the African Development Bank, OPIC, and the investment platform Black Rhino.


KATIE:  We’ll ask Mimi how international donors can strain African energy choices, about her definition of climate justice, and what she thinks the Biden administration should do to get sub-Saharan economies growing again.


ROSE:  But first Katie gets amped up about the Global Cooling Prize.


KATIE:  All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.




ROSE:  All right.  So it’s time for Amped Up, when we talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in the energy and development space.  So Katie, when I think Richard Branson what comes to mind is, like, high octane, high temperature, exciting stuff.  Like, you know, space rockets blasting off, or him and Barack Obama kite-surfing shirtless on a tropical island, that kind of thing, you know  So when you said that you’re obsessed with Richard Branson’s Global Cooling Prize I found myself struggling to picture it.  You know, tell me more.


KATIE:  So I’m so glad you brought up kite surfing.  I had totally forgotten that he and Obama did that together, but it’s a memory I cherish so thank you.


ROSE:  [LAUGHTER] I have that picture of Barack Obama saved on my iPhone.


KATIE:  So Richard Branson launched this big competition about two years ago to see whether competing companies could successfully reduce the climate impacts of residential air conditioners by a factor of five.  And a few days ago he announced two winners–one based in China, and one is an Indian/Japanese partnership.


ROSE:  So Katie, you know I love tech, and obviously this is super exciting.  But what does this have to do with our people, you know, in energy poverty in Africa and developing Asia?


KATIE:  So you’re right that these innovative systems are still about two to three times more expensive than a standard AC unit.  So they’re not ready to be commercially deployed in any of the markets that you and I talk about.  But if we could get them to scale they could solve a huge problem, which is that climate is making heat stress worse.  By 2040 the number of Africans in need of cooling is expected to at least double, and it’s a huge energy suck.  I think it was the IEA who said that doubling the efficiency of global air conditioning would actually reduce electricity demand at a level equivalent to taking all the coal-fired power in China and India offline.  It’s huge.


ROSE:  What do you think gets billionaires like Richard Branson interested in this kind of inside-baseball efficiency space?


KATIE:  I think it’s the combination of opportunity for huge impact and the coolness of being on the cutting edge of new technology and innovation.  And personally, of all the things that someone like Richard Branson could spend money on in the climate space, I’m a huge fan…


ROSE:  Like his own personal bunker in New Zealand for him to sit out the dystopic future?


KATIE:  I mean, he’s probably doing that, too.  But, like, in addition, I’m a huge fan of putting money into competitive awards for innovation.  I think it’s really important.


ROSE:  So just one quick follow-up on this.  So obviously the impact on pushing technology forward is undeniable and this has happened so quickly with the efficiency gains.  But how does this translate to scale?  Do you have a sense of what the next step is?


KATIE:  So they’re planning to continue – you know, they’ve gotten a cash prize from Richard Branson and his foundation.  And they’re going to continue to try to keep scaling and bringing the costs down.  I think this is one of those areas where you achieve efficiencies through deployment, and the more that you work to get the (assistance) operating hopefully that starts the cost curve down.


ROSE:  If you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @EnergyforGrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode.  Coming up we talk with  Mimi Alemayehou about what the investment community is doing right and wrong when it comes to energy development in Africa.




ROSE:  Mimi, welcome to High Energy Planet.  So great to have you.


MIMI:  Thank you for having me.  It’s great to be here.


ROSE:  All right, so let’s just get into it.  So Mimi, you’ve been involved in financing African Energy projects from all sides.  So you’ve been an executive policymaker at the African Development Bank.  You’ve been on the USG DFI side with OPIC.  You’ve been on the private-sector investment side at Black Rhino.  So what is the biggest (difference) in how these three entities think about energy infrastructure?


MIMI:  Yeah, so I must say that I think the whole energy space has changed quite a bit in the past sort of ten years I think that I’ve been in it.  And some of it’s for the better in a sense that you didn’t have sort of an all-government initiative like Power Africa when I was at OPIC to think about not just power generation but what we could do sort of on the ground to help African countries think about policy, think about transmission, and then also bring in other players to the mix, for lack of a better word.  A lot more energy developers entered the African energy market as a result of Power Africa, and I saw it firsthand.  Some of them were developers that worked in other markets–Latin America, Asia, and Europe, and were coming to Africa for the first time.  But there were quite a lot that were just sort of excited about this initiative that was happening that could finally maybe help on the regulatory side, help with (the) enabling environment, that got them excited to think about, “You know what, maybe this is my chance to enter the market.”  So there’s been, you know, some kind of positive developments.  But on some of the negative side, I would say is that it’s always been difficult to get financing for African infrastructure.  And I think the role China and Turkey play, you know, and other, you know, bilateral investors, is also important.  Because Africa needs all of these investors, right?  Because the need is just so significant.  You have 600 million people with no access, and even the ones that have access don’t really have reliable access most of the time, right?  So we need, like, all hands on deck when we’re trying to think about how does the African continent develop?  You know, job creation should be something – should keep every leader up at night.


KATIE:  You know, I was at Power Africa for quite some time and it’s great to hear kind of the positive things that have come out of it from your perspective.  But on the flipside, the ways in which development institutions, including those within the USG, ultimately choose to deploy capital or not, can also have big negative impacts.  And I know that you’ve been frustrated in the past with western donors constraining African energy choices.  I was hoping you could give us a particular example of where you’ve seen that happen.


MIMI:  Oh yeah, “frustrated” is kind of a polite word for how I feel about this issue.  Because, you know, now we’re talking about sort of climate change and, you know, sort of what all these multilateral and bilateral donors are going to be financing or not.  But even before that I’ll give an example of an actual real-deal transaction that was coming to the African Development Bank.  And this was a hydro project, by the way, clean project, right, for (that) financing by the African Development Bank.  And then all of a sudden this project was in Ethiopia, (inaudible) (three), and all of a sudden a lot of sort of NGO groups, all of them really based in the United States, (inaudible) sort of advocated in a very strong way for the bank to withdraw financing.  And we’ll get into the details of that, but it was a lot of issues on environmental downstream and all of that.  And they were speaking, you know, on behalf of African communities living in Kenya and Ethiopia much more strongly than those communities who actually want the power, you know, and need that energy (were speaking).  You know, and this was happening right before the Copenhagen big climate summit.  And obviously the U.S. being a significant shareholder of the African Development Bank was not going to support this project.  So the project got withdrawn, right?  And you know who financed this project in the end?  China did.


KATIE:  I was going to guess, yeah [LAUGHTER].


MIMI:  China did.  So the bank actually lost the opportunity to finance a project with environmental standards being met, you know, engaging the government.  So in the end I literally want to pose this question to this NGO community that was against this project.  They were actually against that project being built.  The project actually got built by the Chinese, right?  So the only thing they achieved was they achieved in a multilateral financial institution not being involved in the project.  That’s what they achieved, because the project did get done.


ROSE:  We see this dynamic playing out also with, say, climate activism, you know, over and over again, and then China and all of these other players with (inaudible) coming in.  Do you think this is a positive trend that Africans should just take investment from where it comes if it’s no strings attached and they have a sense of autonomy?  Or how can the western financiers re-enter the playing field in ways that kind of make sense for Africans?  Or, you know, should they dilute their puritanism?  Should – you know, what is a way to get around this?  Or is it okay that, you know, these are the players that are coming onto the table like China, and Turkey, and you-name-it?


MIMI:  Yeah.  No, I mean, I think there’s work to be done on both ends, right?  So, I mean, there is the issue…  I mean, I’ve been an investor – a very frustrated investor with a ton of equity to deploy and not being able to do it in a country like Nigeria where there’s so much need.  And that has a lot to do with governments not making the very difficult – politically-difficult decisions, but courageous decisions to have cost-reflective tariffs, and basically your utilities are borderline bankrupt.  Nobody’s going to take their balance-sheet risk.  And so we’re always asking for some kind of partial-risk guarantee from the World Bank or whatever to make that risk appetite, you know, palatable for these investors.  So there’s a lot to be done I think by African governments themselves, to have a real plan out of this so that they can invest more in power, so they can attract more investment in the power side.  But for the multilaterals and the bilateral organizations, I mean, a lot of the financing is still coming for Africa from the multilateral organizations, whether it’s the IFC, the Royal Bank’s IFC, or the African Development Bank.  Some are coming from African institutions like the African Finance Corporation or Africa50.  But the issue I have, you know, huge problems with right now is, again, this whole idea of looking at the issue of climate sort of, like, just as a blanket, kind of looking at all markets the same way, right?  And it’s not the same way.  You know, the solutions that are supposedly being sort of marketed for (ACD) nations are not the same ones, right?  When we talk about CO2 emissions and who’s really sort of the emitter of CO2 emissions, it’s mostly all (ACD) countries.  So we cannot expect African countries to be sort of the recipient of less investment in fossil fuel just because the whole world has finally woken up to this real issue.  And it is a real issue of climate, right?  And we all must do something to tackle it.  But not definitely, you know, on the backs of the poor people who actually need more investment.  So that I have an issue with.


KATIE:  We’re curious, thinking about the confluence of climate and countries that desperately need expanded energy supply, in climate discussions globally the term “climate justice” gets thrown around a lot, and it can mean a lot of different things depending on who’s using it.  Do you have a sense of how you would define “climate justice” for Africa?


MIMI:  Yeah, I mean, I think I would define it as because of climate change actually poor people need more investment in energy, not less, right?  So if I have to, you know, say it in one statement I would just say Africa needs much more investment in energy, not less, because of climate change.  And, I mean, when you look at a country like Senegal where I spent the last six years, it’s actually one of, like, the best examples about fossil fuel and the need for gas.  You know, Senegal has discovered, as you may know, like, huge amounts of gas offshore by an American company actually, Kosmos Energy, alongside with British Petroleum now is developing it.  There’s plans to export L&G from Senegal to most likely Europe or whoever the highest bidder is.  But the real issue right now is Senegal actually needs some of that gas for domestic consumption.  Most of Senegal’s energy, I believe, like, 550 megawatt of it, is HFO.  It’s dirtier than gas.  So this is a country that could actually transition from HFO to gas.  They do have, you know, some limits on solar and wind, but how can you, like, ethically really say Senegal cannot use its gas for domestic consumption but Europeans can import gas from Senegal as L&G?  I mean, explain that to me, you know?  Like, that’s the kind of question that, you know, I wake up to every day, even though it’s not my day job anymore.


ROSE:  So Mimi, this is actually a great segue to one question that I have, which is, you know, obviously you were born in Ethiopia, spent your childhood in Kenya–so I consider you a sister – a Kenyan sister–and yet a lot of your career has been spent then working in development from within the USG.  And so on one hand you’re very sensitive and very much understand this African perspective and all of these frustrations that you’re voicing.  On the other hand, you’re working from within these kind of DFIs, and western institutions, and USG institutions that are often getting it wrong.  So in what ways has this insider-outsider identity been an asset or even perhaps a limitation in your work?


MIMI:  I think it’s been an asset in a sense that, you know, when I was on the board of the African Development Bank, even though I’ve had to make some tough decisions of voting no or abstaining on projects at the board, you know, I think people really knew that I took the time to understand, I knew where they were coming from.  I was born in one of the poorest countries at the time when I was born in Ethiopia, understood the context of what they were going through, and abstaining or even on a coal project was sort of, you know, challenging to me because I knew that country sort of needed it.  So I think in that sense it’s been incredibly – I think incredibly helpful to have sort of both sides.  You know, I think what is really needed now is – in some ways is educating everyone else.  Like you and I, and I think the three of us sort of understand what is needed.  But it’s so interesting to me that even among policymakers, whose job it is to sort of engage on these issues, how there’s this sense that Africa can actually, like, develop without sort of the high-energy kind of environment.  And it can do what it did with mobile phones.  I’ve testified on the Hill, and I just remember a senator waving his cell phone at me and saying, you know – literally at the testimony he was waving his cell phone and saying, you know, “Can you say that, you know, Africa can develop with clean energy only just as they’ve done, you know, no need with land lines, and they’ve jumped straight to mobile phones?”  So there’s this, I don’t know, like, false perception that Africa can do that, and I think that’s really wrong.  I mean, I haven’t seen any industry running on clean energy yet, not just in Africa but globally.  So it’s just – I think we have to do a lot of education on all fronts.  And I’m talking civil society, which as you can see have a lot of influence on multilateral institutions, not just the shareholders of the institutions.  So I think we really need to do that before less money is flowing.




KATIE:  Coming up, we ask Mimi about her take on what the Biden administration’s top priorities should be for climate, energy access, and growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and we play Rant or Rave.




KATIE:  So Mimi, as you know, now that the Biden administration is in place the U.S. is trying to re-establish itself as an international climate leader.  And given your definition of “climate justice” that we talked about earlier, how would you advice President Biden on approaching climate specifically in Africa?


MIMI:  I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the plan just because, you know, the plan is executed by institutions, and one of those institutions obviously is the USDFC, the U.S. governments Development Finance Institution, which still has sort of a huge carbon cap on fossil fuel, gas.  So, I mean, you know, they would finance maybe one small- to medium-sized gas-fired project anywhere in the world once a year.  That’s about it.  That is not ambitious.  There is still 600 million people sort of living in the dark that need a whole lot more.  So, you know, I just think this, like, one-size-fits-all kind of policy in terms of, like, how we are going to reduce CO2 emissions globally, and being a bit more ambitious for how we address climate-related poverty, not just in Africa but in other parts of the world, is really not being addressed.  And what I fear more is that, you know, the U.S. is also the larger shareholder of the World Bank.  We are one of the largest shareholders of the Asian Development Bank.  We are the largest – the second-largest shareholder of the African Development Bank.  We are one of the largest shareholders of IDB, right?  So that influence is going to trickle down through all these institutions that are financing a lot of infrastructure in a lot of these developed countries.  So I don’t know where that gap is going to come from, because there’s already a ton of money that’s needed to finance these infrastructure projects, and if they’re limiting these institutions from doing it.  It was harder even before this to get financing for these projects.  So these countries will have no choice but to look another way.


KATIE:  How do you respond to climate activists on the other side who argue essentially, like, “Yes of course, you know, Africa needs to develop.  But the planet simply cannot afford to build more fossil-fuel plants?”


MIMI:  I just – to be honest, I find it almost unethical to have that conversation unless they expect Africans to stay poor.  You know, Africans are not saying, like, “We’re going to develop coal.”  I think there’s almost an agreement on the coal issue.  You know, there’s the exception for South Africa, which ahs a lot of coal plants.  But outside of that, no.  Like, I mean, Africa needs to develop.  Africa needs to create a ton of jobs.  It’s a young continent.  There’s millions of youth entering the workforce every single day.  It’s not negotiable, that’s what I would say.  It’s not negotiable really.  Keeping over a billion people poor is not negotiable.


ROSE:  Yeah, and especially since, you know, Africa building natural gas plants will not make or break climate in any way.  It doesn’t even make a dent.  And so it’s needless suffering.


MIMI:  Yeah.  And these are the same people who take 20-minute hot showers that usually ask you this.


ROSE:  So I think we also – there’s also a lot of pushback on the large hydro side of things, and it’s something that you’ve obviously worked on, and thought about, and been frustrated by.  So we’ve mentioned (GEBA), and (INGA), and other big projects coming online.  What is your kind of response when you’re challenged by different communities about large (hydro) and the role that it should play in Africa?


MIMI:  Yeah – no, I mean, and this has happened, you know, everywhere, not just in Africa.  When I was in OPIC there was a huge project we were doing in Chile, a large hydro.  And literally I think civil society were literally tied to our building opposed to that.  It’s a question we get.  But, I mean, for me, like, when it comes to sort of the African continent, I mean, think about it.  There’s still 600 million people that literally have no access.  So for me, like, every source should be on the table with the exception of coal.  And as long as the large hydro projects are done in an environmentally – you know, according to I guess the IFC standards are usually the ones people kind of use, and the communities that are being impacted are engaged from the beginning…  And a lot of times now this is what happens anyway in order to finance any of these things that are being financed by the multilaterals.  Trust me, the process is so extensive there is no way you can get to the board and have this project approved without so much scrutiny.  And back to your earlier question about making sure that we have strong civil society in these countries that know about the project, and know what the benefits of the project are, that know the full price of that project, to where it’s being done (also financially-viable) way, because these are twenty-year kind of debt terms usually, right?  And so as long as there’s visibility for the citizens…  You know, visibility, yes, for the DFIs, yes.  But visibility, more importantly, for the citizens who benefit from this, right?  So I think that’s important.  I mean, my grandmother – you know, I was raised by – you know, I had two very strong grandmas, and one of them lived in the city, in Addis, had a business; the other one was in the village.  And, you know, the grid still hasn’t come to her village, okay, in Ethiopia.  She lived in (Sidama) in a small town near (Irgalem).  And she went out every morning, you know, either to get some wood, or maybe animal dung, or coal when she had a little bit extra money, you know what I mean, whatever source she needed to cook that day.  So, you know, when I think about her and I think about so many of the women who, you know, struggle every day to feed their children, to make sure their children have electricity to study at night, can give birth in a hospital with electricity…  You know, it’s not even the other luxuries or TV, and fridge, and whatnot; I mean, it’s sort of the basics.  When I think about things – people like that, and these are people I know and family members, I’m not thinking about whether we should do gas or not, you know what I mean?  I’m not.  So…


ROSE:  That’s completely true.  I mean, I, you know, grew up in Nairobi to an educated family, and we often cooked with charcoal and (inaudible) fuels.  And this is after my mom wrote an entire massive thesis on the ills of cooking with dirty fuel.  So we definitely need to resolve these contradictions asap.


MIMI:  Absolutely, I agree with you.


KATIE:  So Mimi, your career is unique for any number of reasons.  But one of them is that you worked for both Presidents Bush and Obama.  I think you’re one of the few political appointees who can say that.  And in the last couple decades partisanship has obviously escalated in the United States.  Do you see that having any significant impacts on U.S. policy towards Africa?


MIMI:  You know, I would say that, you know–and I used to say this even, you know, when I was at OPIC–that for whatever reason Africa seems to be the issue that is quite bipartisan on the Hill.  You saw the way the Build Act was passed in a very bipartisan way.  You see that even in sort of support for increased (USAID) support or whatever, it seems to be the continent that actually has…  Power Africa was another example that, you know, had strong support – bipartisan support from both sides.  So I don’t know the reason behind it, but to be honest with you, like, it’s not something that I’m worried about.  I continue to hear senators on both sides of the aisle really talking about continuing the trend–whether it’s AGOA renewal, or Prosper Africa, and other initiatives, or expansion of maybe Power Africa–and it seems to have support from both sides.  So I’m actually not – that’s the one issue I’m not worried about.  But it’s true that it’s quite rare to work for a Republican president in transition.  I don’t think it’s happening in this administration now, I’ll leave it at that. [LAUGHTER]


KATIE:  That’s great.




ROSE:  Okay, Mimi, now it’s time to play a Rant or Rave.  That’s where we say a word or a term and you go on a short rant or rave about it.  Are you ready?


MIMI:  Sure.


ROSE:  So rant or rave: IFC standards?


MIMI:  Rave.  I think it’s – you know, it’s been good.  And it’s something a lot of DFIs agree on.  There’s always room for improvement, but…


KATIE:  Okay.  Rant or rave: Acoin?




MIMI:  Is that (Akon)’s stuff?


KATIE:  Yes.


MIMI:  The singer?


KATIE:  Yes – yes, it’s Akon’s kind of digital currency.


MIMI:  Oh, I mean, you see, the fact that I don’t even know about it, it’s kind of like the village as well that he’s building on.  I’m sorry, but I like his music and that’s about it.


ROSE:  Rant or rave: women’s empowerment?


MIMI:  I think women’s empowerment, it’s something that everyone talks about now.  But, you know, it means different things for different people.  Obviously I think including women in every aspect of, you know, society is important.  The power sector, you know, I think women are, like, an endangered species.  There’s very few of us; there needs to be more of us.  Because I think, you know, as we brought in – tend to include more people I think we get, you know, better ideas.


KATIE:  Agreed.  Rose and I are on board for that.


ROSE:  Yeah.


KATIE:  Rant or rave: Ethiopian food in Washington D.C.?


MIMI:  You know, I have to have that at least a couple of times a week.


ROSE:  That you make in your kitchen or that you go to…?


MIMI:  No.  Uber Eats, my dear, Uber Eats. [LAUGHTER] Amazing.


ROSE:  All right.  Well, make sure that the relatives in Addis don’t hear that.  All right, so…


MIMI:  For sure.  And Swahili Village, too.


ROSE:  Oh yeah, Swahili Village.  That’s an institution of Kenyan food.


MIMI:  Oh God, (inaudible).


ROSE:  All right, Mimi, thanks so much for being with us on High Energy Planet.  We’ve had just a completely fantastic time chatting with you and we hope to have you again soon.


MIMI:  I had so much fun.  I’m just turning my camera on just to see you guys and say bye.


KATIE:  Thanks Mimi.


ROSE:  All right, thanks.  This was fun.


MIMI:  Bye.


KATIE:  Thanks Mimi.


ROSE:  Bye.






ROSE:  That’s it for today’s show.  High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, an energy solutions connector matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone.  Find out more at and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @EnergyforGrowth.


KATIE:  And if you liked today’s episode please be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us.  Bob Lalasz is our executive producer.  (Gray Johnson) is our senior producer.  Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.