How to power Africa? Lessons from Sierra Leone
By Jessica Stephens, AMDA CEO and Andrew Juma, Communications Manager
Access to energy has long been regarded as a critical lever for unlocking and cementing socio-economic growth and sustained development. As articulated by the World Bank, “access to energy is essential to reduce poverty…energy makes possible investments, innovations and new industries that are engines for jobs, inclusive growth and shared prosperity for entire economies.”
The Government of Sierra Leone has embraced this ethos and is working with private developers and the donor community to develop the country’s key energy infrastructure and fast-track electrification. This follows a hybrid model that combines the National Grid with Decentralised Renewable Energy solutions or minigrids.
Minigrids are small power generators (such as solar, diesel-powered or combined) that provide electricity for certain regions or large-scale institutions. They can be quickly deployed across all terrain and scaled at a much cheaper cost than National Grid extensions. They are also remarkably stable, providing consistent power for more than 97 per cent of a given time as noted in the seminal Benchmarking Africa’s Minigrids report by the Africa Minigrid Developers Association.
In Sierra Leone, minigrids were deployed to quickly power health centres and surrounding communities during the Ebola outbreak so they could operate longer and store vital medicines correctly. Initially diesel powered, their efficacy led to the government embracing renewable minigrids as a medium-term solution to power rural and peri-urban communities. This program is underway, with an impressive 94 grids deployed in 2 years, allowing communities to leverage electricity access to enhance their socio-economic development.
This shows the potential of minigrids in developing countries as they chart a post-COVID-19 economic recovery. In the short-term, the deployment of minigrids can mean the decentralization of storage of vaccines and scaling of vaccination drives across the country, including in arid and semi-arid environments.
In the medium-to-long term, minigrids can provide the cheapest and fastest solution for governments to provide access to stable, reliable and consistent power. According to data from the World Bank, minigrids have the potential to provide electricity to 490 million people with electricity by 2030.
Electricity is a socio-economic anchor and critical to human and cultural development. As such, providing electricity helps address almost all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: ending poverty by providing direct and indirect employment opportunities; ending hunger while providing better health, education, gender parity and environmental outcomes; and these make societies more sustainable, with improved climate resiliency and healthier flora and fauna.
The Africa Minigrid Developers Association (AMDA) is the leading body representing private sector developers on the continent. It works with governments, donors, funding partners and the wider energy sector to build an optimal energy network that will meet the current and future and needs of African economies. AMDAs work focuses on improving finance to the Decentralized Renewable Energy sector, creating an enabling policy environment for developers to operate and building an evidence base on the benefits of minigrids as the continent moves to provide universal access to energy for all its citizens.