As the executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber, spends a lot of time thinking about a central paradox that concerns his industry.
He describes the situation simply: “I think the state of African energy, it’s mixed. It’s resilient, but it’s also very, very mixed.
“Right now, 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity. Nine hundred million do not have access to clean cooking technologies, most of them women, and even those who have access to electricity, it is not reliable, it’s not consistent, and it’s not constant,” he added. “Yet, we’re producing so much oil, so much natural gas.”
The paradox for Africa is how it can leverage its vast reserves of natural resources in a way that ultimately benefits regular Africans. In the past, Africans have been largely left out of enjoying the profits of their continent’s bounty, which has contributed to high levels of energy poverty.
“You still have to look at where we stand today as a continent and say, ‘How are we going to really meet the needs of so many that don’t have?’” NJ Ayuk said. “I would say that is the state of the African energy sector. Basically that’s the state of African energy, because energy is life.
“We’re so glued into lights, into energy, into our cellphones. When you don’t have your cellphone, you feel like something is wrong.
“That’s where we stand when it comes to energy in Africa, and it is not good, it is tough.”
Europe Looks to Africa for Energy Needs
NJ Ayuk sees his role as helping bring more equitable energy to Africa. Through his work on the African Energy Chamber, he hopes to find more investors for the African energy sector and encourage African nations to build infrastructure that can withstand the brownouts that currently plague cities while also supplying power to rural residents who often live in the dark.
Right now is a critical inflection point toward those goals. As Europe transitions away from Russian fuels, many nations are considering using African oil and natural gas as a replacement.
But it’s not as simple as European companies buying from Africa instead of Russia. Much of Africa’s fossil fuels are in locations without mines or wells. Getting to the oil and exporting it to Europe will require significant investment to get the process started, NJ Ayuk explained.
The question of who pays for that development and how it’s built are thorny issues that involve many stakeholders. But even with renewed interest from European markets, more significant problems — like climate change — loom large.
NJ Ayuk believes all problems have solutions, even the complex realities that face the African energy sector. It’s possible, he said, to create incentives that spur new foreign investment that will not only benefit African people in the short term, but will allow countries across the continent to quickly shift to renewable energy sources as it becomes practical.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. But NJ Ayuk envisions a fix that balances the short-term pursuit of profit by energy companies with the needs of current and future generations of Africans to live with reliable access to electricity.
“I am an African capitalist,” he said. “But I think an African capitalist is very different because we have to be able to combine a social sense with an African sense and use our most given resources to empower our people. I think it’s something I see with a lot of people. You shouldn’t be ashamed about making money; it is not bad.”
He uses his own career as an example of a way for Africans to succeed while also effecting social change.
As the founder of Centurion Law Group, NJ Ayuk has been instrumental in negotiating energy deals across sub-Saharan Africa. He’s used his position to hire and educate more African lawyers, often paying for them to follow in his footsteps and study law in America. In addition, Ayuk has spent untold hours working for pro-democracy and human rights causes.
When he talks with students, he encourages them to stop thinking about choosing between social activism and making money. He challenges them to find ways to make both goals happen simultaneously.
He believes that his example can inspire a new generation of African leaders who can not only achieve global success, but can use their profits to create meaningful change in their home countries — and he’s helping them do it.
“We had a big deal and won a great case, and invested 80% of that in sending 25 young lawyers from the continent into the U.S. and in Europe [for education] because we just felt if we are going to go for [the] long term, we’re going to have to pick these really smart and talented people and try it,” Ayuk said.
“I personally pushed for that because without education, I wouldn’t be where I am, and I also thought, ‘These are really smart people, we need to be able to try that.’ Now, it was a gamble, but it paid off. We had a group of young talented people that came back, and they really drove the firm up, and we did different things.”