West Africa’s coastal country Sierra Leone has a rural electrification rate of approximately 5.3%, one of the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. The country’s rural population is heavily reliant on unsustainable and unaffordable sources of energy such as disposable batteries, kerosene and candles to light their homes and supply energy to their electric devices. To make matters worse, the 2014-2016 Ebola virus outbreak severely affected the country’s already fragile economy and healthcare services.
The Government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Energy developed a strategy for active participation and involvement of the private sector in the operation and maintenance of solar mini-grid systems through Public-Private Partnership arrangements. In March 2019, off-grid utilities provider Winch Energy signed a contract with the Ministry to provide electricity to 24 villages located in Northern Sierra Leone – in Koinadugu, Bombali and Tonkolili districts.
The objective of this Rural Renewable Energy Project (RREP) rollout is to benefit the respective communities through additional business services (e.g. internet, refrigeration, printing, television, etc.), which will help to increase income within the locality and offer a better serviced trading centre to the surrounding local population. In addition, the project is aimed at encouraging productive uses of electricity and larger industrial loads such as milling and welding. These services will improve the socioeconomic situation in the locality as well as ensuring the long-term sustainability of the project. The project will also help provide robust infrastructure to the community health centres to assist with the country’s post-Ebola recovery.
The £34 million ($46,65 million) project, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) – now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office – is being developed in partnership with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). The UNOPS has already installed the first 12 mini-grids, which are being managed and operated by Winch Energy. Over 6,000 people are estimated to be benefitting from the first rollout phase. The remaining 12 larger mini-grids, which are expected to provide direct electricity connections to an additional 24,000 people, are currently in the final installation phase and should reach completion by April 2021.
The 24 localities have a combined population of over 40,000 people who will benefit from proximity to the mini-grids, estimated to have a final combined installed capacity of over 1.2MW. When completed, RREP will be one of the largest off-grid projects of its kind in Africa to date.
The project initiative has had an indirect impact on the development of enterprises. Working with micro-credit operator EasySolar has made electrical appliances available to the communities through micro-credit. A partnership with telecom operator Orange gives villages access to mobile money services and telecoms. Since the first 12 mini-grids became operational in April 2020, 83% of customers say their livelihood has improved and 56% of customers say their income has increased.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the off-grid energy provider electrified a further 12 community health centres, giving them free power to ensure patients and healthcare professionals could reliably access clean water, lighting and specialist equipment such as ventilators. Electricity to the health centres has been prioritised to ensure they have the services they need to provide adequate health services to the local populations, especially in the event of any future health emergencies. Additionally, a modular power battery system was installed to benefit community members not yet directly connected to the mini-grids.
The teams have experienced major challenges including the transportation of employees between the different locations due to seasonal flooding, which results in the local team needing to use a raft crossing to reach the sites.
Commenting on the project development, Winch Energy Group CEO Nicholas Wrigley said: “We are looking to expand our footprint into many other villages. In the next year, we expect to connect a further 10,000 people in the country to renewable, smart energy.” This project has helped Winch secure a larger project in Uganda for circa $10 million, which will provide more than 5,000 new energy connections by 2022. The tenders were won with the Ugandan Government and funding was raised from GIZ, NeOT Off Grid Africa and FMO.