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Ghana's dumsor crisis: blackouts plague homes and businesses

Maxwell Suuk in Tamale, Ghana
April 2, 2024

Ghanaians are reeling from power cuts popularly known as "dumsor." Unpaid utility bills, poor infrastructure maintenance and a struggling economy threaten to plunge the entire country back into rolling outages.

A man welding stainless steel in Tamale, Ghana
Sparks but no reliable power: Welders in Tamale have been badly affected by inconsistent electricity suppliesImage: Maxwell Suuk/DW

As night falls near the town of Tamale in northern Ghana, Rakiya Mumuni scrambles to find a candle. Once the single light is flickering in her small kitchen, Rakiya can begin cooking.

"Sometimes we use our phones but because we were not aware [of a pending power outage], my phone is dead and I have to depend on this candle," she told DW.

There's been an electricity outage in Mumuni's Gumani neighborhood since morning, so she hasn't been able to charge her cellphone.

Ghana's parliament in session
Even Ghana's parliament had its lights turned off after the state electricity supplier said it was owed more than $1 million in unpaid billsImage: Isaac Kaledzi/DW

Ghanaian neighborhoods like Mumuni's have been experiencing prolonged electricity outages over the past few weeks.

It's part of a nationwide power crisis that affects not only residential consumers like Rakiya but also businesses — big and small.

By the roadside in Tamale, the power outage has left many welders idle. As a result, Alhassan Abdul Rahaman, for one, has lost work.

"One military man came last Friday for us to make a window for him. We gave him [a set] time to come back for it," Rahaman told DW. "But due to the 'dumsor' we couldn't deliver it and the man was about to attack us."

'Dumsor' — a term in Ghana's Akan language that translates to 'power cut' — has become shorthand for describing Ghana's electricity woes, in the same way people in South Africa refer to 'loadshedding.'

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What's causing the power outages?

The local electricity regulator blames the power cuts on overloaded transformers. But experts say it is partly due to the country's inability to pay private electricity suppliers, who provide the bulk of Ghana's electricity.

The Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), the country's state power company, owes more than $1.7 billion (€1.6 billion) to these suppliers. And the sum of unpaid bills has become so vast that power suppliers have often refused to continue providing electricity. 

The Ghanaian parliament is among those in arrears. In March, it was plunged into darkness over a debt of $1.8 million, according to the ECG.

Salifu Mubarik, an economist at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, said it will take urgent and deliberate investment to get the country out of the situation.

"Looking at the current debt we have accumulated as a country pending the restructuring that is still ongoing, I doubt whether the government can meet the demands of independent power producers," Mubarik told DW. "The best thing the government can do is to renegotiate with them."

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Return to power cuts

Mineral rich Ghana seems in danger of falling back into a situation like that of the period between 2012 and 2016, when it faced a grave power crisis.

The situation has been relatively stable for nearly a decade — but it is beginning to deteriorate again, with many blaming the current threat on poor governance.

Despite the power woes, Ghana is not short on natural resources, boasting three hydro-electric dams: Akosombo, Kpong and Bui.

It also has significant offshore oil and gas reserves, though these have yet to be fully exploited.  

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 63% of Ghanaian electricity is generated though natural gas, with 34% coming from hydropower.

Despite this, a majority of Ghanaians lack a steady supply of electricity, especially in rural areas.

A fisherman in front of an oil rig in Ghana
Ghana is beginning to harness its offshore oil and gas reserves, but these have not yet produced enough energy to cover the country's power needs.Image: Berlin Producers

Blackouts have tragic consequences

In 2021, the IEA reported that the average Ghanaian consumed 0.572 megawatt-hours of electricity, compared 5.924 megawatt-hours for the average German.

Still, a majority of Ghanaians do not have a steady supply of electricity, especially in rural areas. Poor maintainence of existing electricity infrastructure, and Ghana's current economic downturn have been partially blamed for the blackouts. 

And the power cuts have also led to individual tragedy.

Last week, Ghanaian media reported that a 24-year-old mother blamed a power outage at the Tema General Hospital for the death of her 3-day-old baby.

While health officials later denied that the child's death was the result of a power cut or hospital equipment not functioning, the story still shocked ordinary Ghanaians, like Irene Dery, who lives in Tamale.

"When I saw the video of the baby dying at the Tema hospital, I became so devastated and so depressed that I asked myself — where is this country heading?" she told DW.

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Increased demand for power

According to Ghana's Energy Commission, electricity consumption in the residential sector has been steadily increasing at the rate of 4.3% annually over the past two decades, partly due to rapid urbanization and population growth.

And this year, northern Ghana in particular has experienced heatwaves. Engineer Issahaku Mubarik, an energy expert at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, said ordinary people have been investing in ways to mitigate the hot temperatures — often in ways that require even more electricity.

"This has made a lot of people switch to air conditioners, and more air conditioners mean our electricity usage will spike," Mubarik told DW. "Infrastructure planning should have projected that and made adequate provisions but they haven't been able to."

Portrait of Issahaku Mubarik, engineer at Tamale's University for Development Studies
Engineer Issahaku Mubarik believes hotter temperatures will force more Ghanaians to buy energy-intensive products like air conditionersImage: Maxwell Suuk/DW

Meanwhile, back in Gumani, Rakiya Mumuni's refrigerator struggles to keep her perishable food fresh, due to the unstable power supply and low voltage. Mumuni says she's had to throw away precious food because it had gone bad, calling it a waste.

Mumuni and others want the electricity company to roll out a power cut schedule for Ghanaians to plan their lives — like in the old days.

"Some years back we had this dumsor, and then they told us the time — maybe 6-to-6 and we could prepare and know what to do," she told DW. "But now it's not like that. They can just turn off the lights when they like, it just goes off at any time and you are not aware, you are not prepared."

This article has been adapted by Cai Nebe from a radio report that was broadcast on DW's daily podcast AfricaLink

Portait photo of Maxwell Suuk
Maxwell Suuk Maxwell is a DW reporter based in Tamale, Northern Ghana.