Better access to energy for rural communities in Sierra Leone

Learners attending Conakry Dee Secondary School in Port Loko District, being taught at night using solar light in the classroom

Energy access, energy efficiency and the increased use of renewable energy are a crucial part of creating more sustainable, inclusive and resilient communities.  Energy access is essential to improving food security, job creation, spur economic growth whilst addressing security concerns and empowering women as they play a key role in the sector. Affordable, reliable and sustainable energy access lies at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal 7 calls for “affordable and clean energy”.

In the words of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Sustainable energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and an environment that allows the world to thrive.” Yet 860 million people in the world have no access to electricity. In Sierra Leone, access to electricity is a major challenge, according to sustainable energy for all statistics, only 12% of the urban population and around 2% of the rural population have access to electricity. 

The Rural Renewable Energy Project (RREP) was designed in response to the Ministry of Energy’s desire to increase rural electricity access and make strides towards achieving SDG 7. The project, which targets 97 rural communities across the country, is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).  The project was designed to provide a reliable, environmentally friendly and secure electricity to rural communities and is expected to contribute towards low carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, climate-resilient, gender-sensitive and sustainable economic growth.

The RREP is a pacesetter, first of its kind in scale and scope for Sierra Leone and regionally in Sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to power rural communities in hard to reach areas with around 4 megawatts of sustainable renewable electricity supply whilst strengthening and supporting productive use of electricity in mini-grid catchment areas. This will contribute to economic growth through stimulating entrepreneurial activities that can strengthen supply chains. Social benefits will be realised through other primary benefits of the project such as access to improved health care; increased access to education and elevation of incomes within the communities. 

In 2017, the first phase of the project has seen the successful completion of 54 power plants supplying 6.6kWh of electricity to the Community Health Centres (CHCs) of which 50 mini-grids have been scaled-up as a second phase to generate and distribute up to 36kWp of electricity to households, commercial enterprises and public institutions within the communities across 14 districts in the country. All of the 50 mini-grid which are part of Work Package one plus have been handed over to the Ministry of Energy which has subsequently engaged private operators through a Public-Private Partnership agreement for electricity provision to the households and commercial enterprises. The Operators are responsible for the operations and maintenance of the mini-grids. As of the end of April 2020, 4,109 households have been electrified which is in line with the target of 7,000 households expected to benefit from the electricity. In addition, the Work Package two grid installation works have started in 2019 and are scheduled for completion across the 44 sites by the end of October 2020.

Conakry Dee Clinic. 16.03.18 (1000 - 1130) (13)
A nurse examining a pregnant woman at night

Since the villages started receiving electricity, community members are reporting positive changes as a result of the electricity. For example, Fatmata Sillah, a nurse at the Conakry Dee Community Health Centre (CHC) explained that light is life because she was able to save the life of a baby with airway blockage using a mucus sucker machine. She said, “Since we have an electrical mucus sucker and stable electricity from the mini-grid, I  was able to successfully remove the mucus from the lungs of the baby which saved the baby’s life”. A few years ago before the CHC started receiving electricity from the mini-grid, the clinic could not use the electric mucus suckers because there was no electricity source to power it. The clinic consequently had to refer babies that needed aspiration to the Lungi Government Hospital which is about 8km from Conakry Dee community Since the clinic started benefiting from electricity, they no longer have to turn away patients that need to be aspirated.  

Furthermore, the provision of electricity in some schools has enabled classes to be taught when classrooms are dark, providing a more conducive learning environment. Electricity enables the use of modern mass media tools in the classroom such as the internet and televisions, allowing children in rural settings to access the world. According to a report on electricity and education written by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, electrified schools have better staff retention, outperform non-electrified schools on key educational indicators, and can in some cases enable broader social and economic development of communities. 

Mustapha, a teacher at the Bombali District Junior Secondary School in Rokonta, was quoted saying: “Access to power enables learners to study at home during the night”. He asserted that they noticed an increase in the performance of pupils in Junior Secondary School  (JSS 1-3) since households in the Rokonta community started receiving electricity from the mini-grid in August 2019. The school’s administration believes that this change has a direct correlation to pupils’ ability to study at home because their households are receiving electricity from the mini-grid and in that regard are optimistic about improved performance of the pupils in the next public examination. In remote areas, mini-grids are a relatively cheaper alternative to expanding the main grid. The use of solar energy reduces the need for communities to rely on expensive and fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. 

The project also provides technical assistance and institutional support (capacity building) to the government of Sierra Leone and the private sector, to create and facilitate an enabling environment for mini-grid development and long term sustainability. This support is reflected in the Sierra Leone Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission (SLEWRC) Minigrid regulation which was recently ratified by parliament and also the adopted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines for renewable and mini-grid projects. It is forecasted that the RREP will reach around 338,085 direct beneficiaries, increase the welfare asset value such as education, health and business for the targeted communities and by December 2021, complete construction and installation of all the 97 mini-grids making sustainable electricity access possible to a total of 21,000 people.