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Liberia’s long wait to turn on the lights

24/06/2012

Only 0.58 per cent of Monrovia residents have access to public electricity, as African nation rebuilds after civil war.

“My wife, she is still going to school at night, studying on a China light,” he said. “It is embarrassing. However, we did it to our self. And we just have to ask God to forgive us. This is the process that we are in.”

Bessi Marshall sits outside her home in near-total darkness. Around her, four young grandchildren huddle close, never venturing more than an arm’s length into the surrounding shadows. Despite living just a few houses back from the main road in Jallah Town, in central Monrovia, Marsha’s family has no electricity. The only light comes from a small cooking fire.

During the night, Marshall fears for her family’s safety. “I can’t sleep,” she says. “I stand at that window and am very afraid.”

In addition to security, Marshall, says that electricity – or current, as it is colloquially called – would let her children devote more time to their studies. In the evenings, one of her older sons, Sekou, goes to the main road to do his homework under a street light connected to the city’s electrical grid. But the traffic there is constant, making the area noisy and unsafe for younger children.

The family owns one small LED flashlight – a “China light”, as Liberians call them. But it doesn’t shine brightly enough to let everybody study at once, and Massa complains that its dim-white glow is painful on her eyes.

Only 0.58 per cent of the residents of this West African country have access to public electricity, according to a 2011 World Bank report. Outside the capital city, public power is practically unheard of. Those who do have access to the Liberian capital’s electrical grid pay $0.43 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), likely the highest rate in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of businesses and some private homes run on diesel generators that carry a price of $3.96/kWh.

Liberia’s energy sector was devastated by 14 years of civil conflict that only ended in 2003. Warlords deliberately targeted electrical infrastructure. The capital city was repeatedly the site of battles that left scars still visible today. And in the years of shaky peace that immediately followed the war, looters stripped bare anything that wasn’t already destroyed.

The connectivity rate is on the rise, and ambitious targets have been set. The 2009 Liberia National Energy Policy states that by 2015, the government expects 30 per cent of the country’s urban population and 15 per cent of those living in rural areas to have “reliable modern energy services”. And in a January 2012 address made shortly after Sirleaf was re-elected to a second term in office, she reaffirmed her administration’s commitment to restore electricity to Liberia.

But Monrovia residents say that they have heard it all before. Asked about the wait for electricity, they recalled a pledge “to turn on the lights” made by US legislator Nancy Pelosi during a visit to Liberia in 2006, or aborted negotiations with Brazilian firm Vale that attracted media attention in February 2011.

Now, hopes rest on plans to rehabilitate the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant, which sits on the St Paul River less than 35km from Monrovia. If restored to pre-war conditions by the government’s stated goal of 2015, Mount Coffee’s expected 64 megawatts of electricity would significantly reduce the price of electricity in Liberia. The governments of Norway and Germany and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have announced plans to finance the project. But, even if the money were to arrive tomorrow, several officials interviewed said that a 2015 completion date is unrealistic.
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* Generator Man

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