ExplainersMedia LiteracySierra Leone

Living in the dark and paying for it; the tale of Sierra Leone’s paralytic power supply

Introduction

The Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) requires that countries across the globe should have “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030. With just seven years to go, Sierra Leone’s energy situation is anything but reliable, sustainable and affordable to all. 

Indeed, according to the ‘Sustainable Energy for All Programme,’ Sierra Leone has one of the lowest electricity access rates in the world. Data show that only 26% of the population do have access to electricity, which pales into an insignificant 6% in the ‘rural communities’ according to research. 

As a result, there has been a bout of power outages across many parts of Sierra Leone, a major issue of concern to all.

For instance, in December 2022, there was a major power outage in Bo and Kenema — which the power authorities for Bo and Kenema attributed to major technical faults. Sadly, many Sierra Leoneans are getting used to living in the dark rather than working in the light. The social, political, economic, educational, and economic repercussions are dire.      

In light of the situation, DUBAWA spotlighted Sierra Leone’s power sector and its negative impacts on the people. 

The impact of the civil war on electricity in Sierra Leone 

Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil conflict — which started in 1991 and ended in 2002, had huge negative impacts on every aspect of the country.

The electricity sector was not spared. Even though there is no clear-cut data or statistics on how badly the war affected the country’s electricity sector, pictorial evidence indicates the amount of devastation the power sector suffered due to the war was quite alarming. 

Living in the dark and paying for it; the tale of Sierra Leone’s paralytic power supply
Image Source: Getty Images — Image capturing the devastations of the war in Sierra Leone

Pa Sinnah, 66, a retired civil servant, explained to DUBAWA that, before the civil war, the country, particularly Freetown (capital city), was a bit okay regarding ‘access to electricity,’ noting that the rebel war significantly destroyed the country’s energy infrastructure. 

“The destruction of some major energy infrastructure in the city is a major reason why the poor electricity situation continues…” he noted.

Sierra Leone’s energy mix 

Results from desktop research conducted by DUBAWA revealed that before the civil war, “Hydroelectricity” had been the major source of energy production; areas like ‘Dodo town’ in Eastern Sierra Leone had been fortunate to have access to electricity as far back as 30 years ago. 

After the war, it became clear that Sierra Leone’s twin problem in the power sector was the ‘access and reliability of electricity supply.’ Some 2016 World Bank (WB) data show that only 15 per cent of the country’s population has electricity access. Out of that percentage, only 2.5% of the rural population has access to electricity, as noted by a World Bank data result released in 2016. 

Similarly, in December 2017, Sierra Leone Netherlands Business and Culture Council (SLNBCC) published a report titled: “Sector Scan: The Energy Sector in Sierra Leone.” The report disclosed that the country’s electricity sector is hugely hinged on hydroelectric power from approximately 20 hydroelectric sites, with a total capacity of 1,200MW. 

The report noted further that the small West African nation could boast more than three hydropower stations with a total capacity above 50 MW.  

According to 2021 research data published by Stephaine Hirmer et al., titled: “Understanding Sierra Leone’s Energy Sector,” — it has become clear that Sierra Leone’s energy sector needs a quick fix. 

The research further shows that 80% of Sierra Leoneans do not have access to electricity. Of the 20% that have access to electricity, 17% are connected to the grid, while 2 to 3% are connected to solar, mini-grid and/or portable home energy systems in the country.

The main source of electricity in Sierra Leone is from the grid, which is powered largely by the Bumbuna Hydropower scheme. According to research, that scheme operates at approximately 50 MW during the rainy season and eight MW in the dry season.

How has the limited power supply affected citizens?

There is a unanimous opinion about how the poor power supply in Sierra Leone has negatively impacted the businesses and lifestyles of the citizens of Sierra Leone. For example, a petty trader in Freetown, Saffie Dumbuya, told DUBAWA that,

“The grumble regarding access to electricity is not new in Sierra Leone because past and present leaders have done little in addressing the challenges in relation to access to electricity.”

To make matters worse, Dumbuya indicated that even in its limited and erratic supply, power is still expensive in Sierra Leone, making the cost of living for petty traders like her a lot more expensive. 

Mohammed Sanu, a third-year Media and Communications student of Fourah Bay College (FBC) in Freetown, also complained about the poor quality of service by the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA), the body tasked with providing electricity. He added that EDSA subjected them to constant power outages for three consecutive days and beyond, even as students reside in the University’s hostels.

“I have to do my assignments and other academic stuff, and yet I cannot complete any because of power cuts,” he noted.

Lansana Daramah, a certified pharmacist in Freetown, told DUBAWA that the situation in the country’s capital city, Freetown, is unbearable. He said even the capital couldn’t boast of affordable and reliable electricity, adding that pharmacists get worried whenever there is a power outage in the city, pharmacists get worried because of the poor drug storage facilities outages foster. 

He added that many pharmacies don’t have a standby generator to keep their medicines fresh and wholesome at all times.  

Selling power in the dark

Even those at the sales points of Sierra Leone’s meagre power supply are not left out of the misery; Jeremiah James is a student and an EDSA vendor. Jeremiah’s business is to sell electricity units/top-up) in Freetown. 

James told DUBAWA that his business only flourishes with a consistent electricity supply. He, however, noted that most of the time, his EDSA top-up business would face setbacks when power outages continue for quite a while.                                          

Asked about the daily profit and challenges his business faces, he replied that the top-up business has a meagre profit margin. He quickly added that the good thing about the business is the demand for it from citizens who need electricity to carry out their activities.       

Jeremiah disclosed to DUBAWA that their top-up business, like any other business, faces difficult situations, ranging from a poor network, a small commission, difficulties in getting the units, and many other challenges. One such challenge, he said, which usually serves as a setback, is the inability for them to be able to reverse a transaction in the shortest possible time. He added that he and many other EDSA top-up vendors in the city go through huge financial losses whenever they mistakenly send toppings to the wrong meter number. 

Some customers who spoke to DUBAWA sometimes said to get access to electricity; they have to go through days of blackout before they can finally get the power which does not even last for long before it is gone. 

The Way Forward 

Living in the dark and paying for it; the tale of Sierra Leone’s paralytic power supply
Image Source: TRANSCO online images — Image showing one of the WAPP project power stations. 

The “2025 access to electricity for all Sierra Leoneans” — a project launched in 2016 and supported by the Development Funds for International Development (DFID) provides for every Sierra Leonean citizen residing in the country “to have or get access to affordable and reliable electricity by the end of 2025. This great advancement is hoped to commence two years from now (2023).”

The DFID project is set to provide “reliable and affordable” energy for every Sierra Leonean by 2025. In addition, the West African Power Pool (WAPP) project is equally set to provide the small West African nation with an uncompromising electricity supply.

According to Politico Online News, the WAPP project would significantly help boost energy efficiency in Sierra Leone by the completion of the project, adding that, despite the plenty of challenges COVID-19 brought to the project, the contractors had managed to complete 70% of the entire project. 

Engineer Charles Saffa — the man in charge of the WAPP electrification project in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, disclosed: “…the project involves a power transmission line of 225 KW running through 1,303 KM with 11 substations across the countries for which Liberia will have three substations, Guinea will have two, and Sierra Leone will have five substations.” He added that, of all of these, Ivory Coast will still be the host country for the project. 

But how can this be achieved? 

Donor support has been one of the key interventions towards arresting power paralysis in Sierra Leone.

The United Nations Office for Projects (UNOPS), with funding from the Government of Japan, has invested $3.6 million in implementing a project on behalf of Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Energy to help expand energy access to remote areas/villages in the country’s. 

Again, the World Bank, in 2021, supported Sierra Leone with 50 million United States Dollars to improve access to electricity in the small West African country. 

The African Development Bank (ADB) has equally not ignored Sierra Leone amid the heavy support it receives from other international organisations. The ADB, in late 2022, approved a one million United States Dollars grant through the Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) for Sierra Leone and Ghana to develop the ‘bioenergy plants’ in the two West African nations. 

What are the experts doing with the funds?

According to an article published by Global Times Newspaper in Freetown on November 23, 2022 – the Ministry of Energy, in a press conference, informed pressmen that the Ministry is doing a strategic oversight role in ensuring that it provides good ‘utility service’.

The publication added that the EDSA Director-General – Mr Abu Kamara, said that electricity is a significant commodity that every sector of society needs, adding that it contributes to the socio-economic growth of all Sierra Leoneans. 

The DG disclosed that not only EDSA but citizens are also charged with the ‘civic responsibility’ to ensure that access to electricity is ‘affordable and reliable’ for every Sierra Leonean residing in the country.  

To what extent had the donors’ monies impacted access to electricity in the country?

This is the question DUBAWA posed to a group of staff that responded to provide energy for Freetown, named the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA).                 

Responding to the question, Ing. Tony Johnson noted that there has been a slight improvement in the country’s energy sector. He, however, stated a lot still needs to be done on electricity infrastructure if the country should resolve the many energy challenges a good number of Sierra Leoneans undergo on regular bases. 

Asked to justify his statement, he categorically told DUBAWA that he is not in charge of donor monies coming into the Authority, adding that for that reason, he would not be able to inform DUBAWA on how the monies are spent. He further stated that his work is highly concentrated in the field than in any office space.  

“For us to improve access to electricity in the country, more collaboration needs to be done. The donors, I think, should ensure to follow up on the huge monies they usually support the country’s energy sector with,” he indicated.

Conclusion

While it is true that successive governments are indicating efforts to improve the power supply in Sierra Leone, the pace at which the sector is growing does not inspire confidence. It is about time all stakeholders, particularly the government, work together towards improving the power sector.

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