Growing access to electricity in Liberia can be the key to development, writes ROISIN CARLOS (Photograph by Dominic Chavez / World Bank)

Limited access and an unreliable electricity supply is not just about rolling black outs. Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is vital to ending extreme poverty, and yet around 1.1 billion people still live without out it in the world today.

Progress in Africa remains especially slow. Demonstrating this, the Afrobarometer survey presents a stark picture of household connection to electricity in Africa. Only 25% of the continent is always connected, 30% suffers poor access, and 45% have no access to electricity at all. Break down this figure further and we see that 589 million people do not have access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 30 African countries suffer endemic shortages.

Energy poverty acts as a major obstacle to development in the continent, with real consequences upon a plethora of human development indicators including economic growth, health and the environment. No other African country best presents the realities of these consequences than Liberia. With only four million people with electricity access and less than 1% of the population connected to grid power, Liberia holds the title for the lowest access to electricity in the world. This devastating access rate can be explained by numerous factors, including the widespread destruction of existing infrastructure during the 16-year civil war. In fact, it is only since the end of the civil war in 2003 that the Government finally began rehabilitating the badly damaged electricity connections. As a result, in 2006 electricity was restored to parts of Monrovia for the first time in fifteen years. Consequently, Liberia is reeling from the implications of limited electricity access, particularly in the economic, health and environmental sectors, leading the government to declare an ‘electricity national emergency’ in 2012.

Energy consumption, economic growth and employment generation are all positively correlated. In a country where 76% of the population has an income of less than 1 USD a day, solutions need to be found to drive economic growth and employment generation. Electricity access, by acting as a tool to unlock greater productivity in the workforce, can be instrumental in this regard. However, the key to unlocking this potential is to first invest in energy infrastructure for increased access to energy in order for the economy to grow.

The energy challenge has been equally critical in the delivery of healthcare in Liberia. In a country characterized by extremely dispersed and rural populations, limited electricity has been detrimental to the development of health care centers in rural areas. Healthcare is systematically undermined when it is dependent upon electricity access for motorizing technologies, keeping medicines cool or using sterilization machines. We need not look any further than Liberia’s devastating experience of the 2015 Ebola outbreak, in which everyone one of Liberia’s fifteen counties reported cases, to understand the importance of the delivery of advanced health care.

Consideration of the sustainable development of the country would be incomplete without mention of the environmental impact posed by energy access. As a result of limited electricity, the vast majority of the population rely on informal systems such as household-scale diesel gensets and biomass for basic energy services. However, substitute fossil based fuels present serious negative impacts including deforestations, increased green-house-gas emissions, and loss of biodiversity, in addition to health concerns created due to poor air-quality.

In the words of US President Barack Obama when launching the US funded Power Africa in 2013, “You’ve got to have power”. The solution seems clear: unleashing the energy potential of Liberia. Indeed, Liberia has the power potential in the form of renewable energy. This solution has been duly recognized, as today there are numerous examples of high-profile initiatives being rolled out to tackle the heart of this problem, including USAID’s Power Africa Initiative, the African Development Bank’s Energy for Africa, or the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), among others, along with national strategies to meet the seventh Sustainable Development Goal.

Promoting access to electricity through renewable energy can and will be a key to development in Liberia, and in extension in the continent of Africa. Renewable energy not only responds to the population’s needs, fueling economic growth and access to health care, but it also has the added incentive of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, positively impacting the sustainable development of the country.

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