"I Better Pass My Neighbour" - Generator Use and The Nigerian Energy Crisis

Edwina Owusu-Adjapong
November 26, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2018


Fig. 1: A young man and a boy working in a generator set in Nigeria. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Federal Republic of Nigeria, with a population estimated at 198 million people in 2018 and a land mass of 910,771 sq. km., is not only Africas most populated country but also, the 7th most populous country in the world. Despite Nigeria being the worlds 12th largest producer of petroleum and the 8th largest exporter, and having the 10th largest proven reserves, the country faces a dearth of power supply.

Nigeria's continuous dependence on oil to run its economy has proved unsustainable and unprofitable to the economy, as the country's irregular power supply is one of the major challenges hampering economic development of Africa's largest economy. This problem has created a to trend of low-cost generator use, commonly called "I Better Pass My Neighbour", among members of Nigeria's up-and-coming middle class population. Most Nigerians have to depend on these personal generators to get through everyday tasks that require power usage.

The Energy Crisis and the Resultant Boom in Generator Usage

Nigeria's first power plant with a nameplate capacity of 2 MW was installed in Lagos in 1896, marking the commencement of electricity generation in Nigeria. In 1929, the first electric utility company, the Nigerian Electricity Supply Company, was established. A Federal government owned monopoly, the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), was in charge of the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity by the year 2000. The Power Sector Reform Act was established in 2005, paving way for the National Electric Power Policy aimed at establishing an efficient electricity market in Nigeria. Nigeria has privatized its distribution companies, so there is a wide range of tariffs. The Federal government however, still owns the transmission company.

Nigeria is going through an alarming energy crisis, with 60-70% of its population of almost 200 million people living without regular access to electricity. [1] The nation's growth and development has been stalled by the lack of trust in government among the populace, poor organizational management, deteriorating infrastructure and a legacy of low investments into the country. Nigeria is endowed with large oil, gas, hydro and solar resources, and it already has the capacity to produce an estimated 7,000 megawatts (MW) of electric power from existing plants. But because of problems such as inadequate infrastructure, and problems associated with gas supply and water shortages, only about 4,000 MW reaches the national grid. This is insufficient for the country's population of 198 million. [2] A significant number of power plants in Nigeria are currently operating below their nameplate capacity. The absence of a strong and functioning power sector has left the population with an expensive and unreliable source of power. Most rural homes are not connected to the national grid. Just one out of four people in rural Nigeria is connected to the national grid, compounding a trend of rural-urban migration that is increasing pressure on amenities in Nigeria's already overburdened cities. [2] According to the Nigerian Power Minister, Babatunde Fashola, nearly half of Nigeria's population has no access to power at all. The power demand in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city greatly surpasses supply. Thus the city's 25 million residents must either go without electricity, or rely on expensive, fume-belching generators. Thus, in order to guarantee supply for its 198 million people, Nigeria currently needs to produce over 10 times its current electricity output. [2] The energy crisis places severe constraints on Nigeria's plans for industrial development and economic diversification.

Effects of the Energy Crisis

The undersupply of energy impacts citizens' daily lives in diverse ways. Without adequate electricity supply, medicine storage is affected, food goes bad because refrigeration is impossible, and running water is not available. Because of this problem, many people have resorted to self-generation of power using independent generators for most commercial activities and small low-cost diesel and petrol generators, popularly known as "I Better Pass My Neighbour" for most domestic activities. Although generators are costly to purchase and operate, it has become a necessity.

This dependence on self-generation using diesel powered generators by businesses has given rise to an increase in the price of goods and services. Costs of public and private transport, accommodation (hotels, renting a house or apartment), education, and social functions like weddings and funerals are all dependent on the price of fuel. [3] The cost of fuel is also factored in when making basic purchases like food and drinks, making the cost of living in Nigeria and doing business there, among one of the world's highest. The reliance on self-generated electricity through power generating sets (diesel and petrol) poses health and environmental threats due to pollution and efficiency concerns. These threats are more pronounced in the low-income areas of major Nigerian cities, which are usually overpopulated.

The Way Forward

To this end, the Federal Government has placed a ban on the bulk import of small generators, citing air pollution and health risks as the reason for the ban. However, the import and sales of small single unit generators remain permitted by the government. The ban neither presents a long-term solution to the health hazards caused by the use of small generators nor addresses the underlying problem of the undersupply of energy. This is because people who have the means can always upgrade to the use of even larger diesel generators, which leads to worse gas emissions coupled with more noise pollution. A better solution would be to fix the problems with the national grid and explore alternative clean energy sources.

By the start of 2020, demand for energy is forecast to be more than double its early 2018 levels. [2] Thus, there is a need for sustainable solutions to the energy undersupply problems in order to generate the energy needed to meet the needs of Nigeria's growing population. Nigeria has set a target of expanding electricity access to 75 percent of the population by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030. [2] To meet this goal, it would be prudent to explore an expansion of the energy mix by exploring other energy sources such as the use of biomass and biofuels and the development of new gas fields to generate electricity.

© Edwina Owusu-Adjapong. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] U.B. Akuru, O.I. Okoro, "Renewable Energy Investment in Nigeria: A Review of the Renewable Energy Master Plan," J. Energy South. Afr 25, 3, (2014).

[2] I. Gerretsen, "Oil-Rich Nigeria Turns to Renewable Energy as Population Booms," Reuters, 13 May 18.

[3] S. I. Ocheni, "Impact of Fuel Price Increase on the Nigerian Economy," Mediterr. J. Soc. Sci. 6, 560 (2015).