Power to the people

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One of the world’s most beautiful and intriguing places bakes in the afternoon sun, the thatched roofs of the stilted houses reflected in the water that surround their foundations.

Ganvie, described as the Venice of Africa, is a breathtaking city on stilts that sprawls across lake Nokoue, a spectacular home to 20,000 people who criss cross from doctors’ surgery to hotel to home to work on canoe boats, naviagating through sea foliage, floating wood, boats carrying food, washing and fishing nets.

It lies in the heart of Benin in West Africa – sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria – where a way of life has endured for centuries but where day-to-day life, never mind progress, is crippled by a need for what we all take for granted – power.

“It’s pretty desperate at the moment,” says Alan, who heads Gasol, a firm which is currently working towards setting up a groundbreaking scheme to bring liquid natural gas to three West African nations, Ghana, Benin and Togo, by boat from Azerbaijan.

“Benin has a population of four million – not that much less than Scotland – but it only has a power supply of 20 megawatts while Scotland has 60,000 megawatts,” he adds. “It means Benin has to import power from some of its neighbours and there is a desperate situation with power cuts, the network cutting out and just not enough power for industry to keep going.”

Bringing power to countries which struggle without a regular and dependable supply can transform them, adds Alan, helping to haul them into a modern age, empowering industry with the tools it needs to develop and giving businesses a vital chance to flourish.

And while it won’t necessarily mean that age-old ways of life will be lost, switching on the power to struggling nations has the potential to bring better standards of living for everyone.

There’s just one – or make that two – potential problems: pirates and terrorists.

Pirates struck last August when, in a bid to escape capture by the navy, they boarded an oil tanker off the west coast of Africa and attempted to make sail without first hauling up the vessel’s anchor. The result was a horrifying rupture in the vital underwater West Africa Gas Pipeline that disrupted gas supplies to Benin, neighbouring Ghana and Togo for at least two months and cost £40m to repair. Already highly deficient in energy, the three countries were plunged into a fuel crisis which, even now, is still crippling their progress.

Another potential problem could come in the form of terrorists, who have already seized other fuel firms’ employees in terrifying hostage situations.

“I go to Benin and Togo and feel quite safe – I don’t have armed guards following me around,” Alan insists. “But if I’m in Nigeria and in particular northern Nigeria, then I do have armed guards.

“And in the Niger Delta there are lots of incidents.”

Dealing with all those risks is a far cry from growing up in Braidburn Terrace, where Alan, 49, and younger brother Patrick would play around the Braid Burn and catch the bus to Stewart’s Meville.

And it’s different too from Alan’s former job as a lawyer, working for a law firm which handled the affairs of the rule of Abu Dhabi and based in the oil-rich nation. “When I wasn’t working, you could either spend weekends on the beach or in the desert driving around the sand dunes,” he smiles.

Now Gasol’s chief operating officer, Hibs fan Alan moves between the firm’s London offices and a base in Benin, while fitting in time at home in Bath with his wife Louise and daughters Molly, 17 and 16-year-old Megan.

“Bringing gas supplies to these countries would make a massive difference,” he adds.