Power surge: Looking for light in Sierra Leone

06/06/2016

by Jonas Restle and Angela Betancourt

Sierra Leone is one of the world’s darkest countries. Only around 10% of the urban population have access to power from the grid, and even fewer have access in rural areas – just 1%. But now, an energy initiative could shed light on the darkest corners of the country, allowing businesses to thrive and homes to be lit.

Countries with less sunlight than Sierra Leone have more solar power. Showered in sunlight, there is huge potential for solar in Sierra Leone but despite vast market demand, the solar industry is weak with few affordable products available.

The Sierra Leonean economy is slowly recovering after the Ebola crisis with enterprises resuming activities and new ones opening up. Power supply plays a critical role in reviving the local industry.

Stable electricity is crucial for businesses to keep operations running. Without it, families struggle to survive, businesses collapse and healthcare standards plummet.

A few aged, fuel-driven power stations and several hydropower stations produce energy for the entire country. Whereas hydropower is of great value during the rainy season, capacity drops dramatically during the dry season as rivers dry out and water reservoirs diminish. This approach is therefore unstable and unable to meet national demand.

Diesel generators still produce most of the electricity used by households and businesses. Not only are these the most expensive sources of power, but they cause pollution and severely damage the environment.

As a result, Sierra Leonean families spend up to one fifth of their entire income on batteries and self-charging electronic devices. While charging a mobile phone may seem an easy task to many, most Sierra Leoneans need to bring their phones to designated shops to get them charged. Insufficient access to clean energy also severely affects people’s health. Most families use charcoal and fire wood for cooking, and many have little if no access to stable medical assistance.

The president of Sierra Leone and the Ministry of Energy, together with the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), have now launched an initiative to improve the business environment for the solar sector. They have signed the UK Africa Energy Africa Compact to attract more investors to the country.

The initiative will facilitate the import of solar panels to provide electricity for every household in Sierra Leone by 2025. This will reduce dependency on aid, improve public services and boost the economy.

Hopes are high among Sierra Leoneans since the launch of Energy Africa. If international and local investors grasp this new opportunity with both hands Sierra Leone’s economy has a chance of moving towards a better, lighter, future.

To see more of our photos from Sierra Leone click here.