To date, the foundation has provided $19.7 million for the construction of a 13.8 megawatt hydroelectric power plant scheduled to come online in December 2015 and has pledged another $39 million toward the cost of two more plants. The hydropower project is part of a regional investment program drawn up by Congo's national parks authority and the Virunga Foundation — a UK charity working in the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Virunga hopes to attract a total of $166 million from investors to build seven hydro plants as well as hotels, vocational schools, and other infrastructure over the next six years. Virunga Foundation CEO and park director Emmanuel de Merode estimated that each additional megawatt would create about a thousand local jobs.
"Hydro plants are really the game changer," Buffett told Reuters. "[Each plant] provides jobs, it provides new resources, new investment. It helps keep people from cutting the trees down for charcoal in the forests. So it's like a win, win, win." Chronic power shortages are considered a major barrier to development in Congo, where only about 10 percent of the population has access to electricity.
Buffett, whose foundation has pumped more than $200 million into Africa's volatile Great Lakes region, is betting that private investment can spur development where the United Nations and aid agencies have failed. Although Congo is rich in mineral resources, two-thirds of its population lives in poverty, while the country's eastern region is plagued by armed groups whose ranks are filled by young men with no job prospects. A UN peacekeeping mission that cost $1.4 billion and billions more spent on humanitarian aid have done little to improve conditions in the country, and ongoing violence in and around Virunga is a deterrent to investors.
"The government could take it away tomorrow," Buffett said of the hydro plant. "You could have a rebel group go in and blow it up tomorrow. That's part of why we're doing it: because no one else is interested in doing it."
Some local residents, however, see the initiative as yet another resource grab by a foreign entity with its own agenda. Chrispin Mvano, an independent researcher and journalist, criticized park authorities for failing to collaborate with local communities and called for more international support for agriculture — the dominant economic activity in the region — as well as existing small-scale hydroelectric projects.
De Merode acknowledged the "enormous tensions" that exist with local populations but said industrialization was the only long-term solution for the region. But as Innocent Gasigwa, a spokesman for civil society in the territory of Rutshuru and a supporter of the project, noted: "If just one war breaks out again, it's over."