Thursday, May 10, 2007

Saving Freetown from darkness

At night, the moon comes to the rescue of Sackville Street, one of Freetown’s busiest. The street, a mixture of shops and residential buildings located in the centre of Freetown, is always a beehive of business activities. But unlike other business districts in other parts of West Africa it enjoys little electricity supply. So, at night the inhabitants of Sackville Street rely on the city’s bright moonlight to move around.

Electricity is the most expensive commodity in Sierra Leone. Less than 1 percent of the population enjoys electricity, and even this lucky few only get it on an intermittent basis. These beneficiaries live in Freetown, the capital, and in some parts of South-eastern Sierra Leone. The rest of the country is seldom lit at night.

Since it’s just coming out of an eleven-year civil war, Sierra Leone’s problems are multifarious. Water is scarce, corruption is deep-rooted, poverty is rife and electricity supply is almost nil. However, most Sierra Leoneans see the country’s epileptic electricity supply as its most serious problem.

Mohamed Kamara, a taxi driver running the Freetown-Conakry route, says life in the capital is tough in the absence of basic utilities. "We have not had power for the past six months. There is no water and there is no light, how do they want us to cope?" he asks.

The country’s authorities have promised that they will soon embark on a project that will make problems associated with electricity supply a thing of the past.

One such project is to be built in Bumbuna falls. A cabinet sub-committee chaired by the vice president is responsible for all policy decisions related to the project while Italian engineering firm, Studio Pietrangeli, is the contractor. The Government of Sierra Leone is providing $8,4mn; the Italian government, $21,1mn; the World Bank/International Development Association, $12,5mn; The Netherlands’ Clean Development Facility, US$1,9mn; the African Development Bank, $3,5mn; Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries fund, $10mn and commercial banks that will provide a $38mn loan.

But many a Sierra Leonean says such promises are seldom fulfilled. Recent events seem to have borne this skepticism out. At the launch of a 7MW electricity generator in November 2005, Foday Mannah, the General Manager of the National Power Authority, promised that the authorities would solve the problem in three months. It is over a year now, yet the problem still exists.

Sierra Leone is one of a small number of countries in West Africa with the highest costs of electricity generation and delivery in the world. Currently the cost of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution is US cents 29 per KWH, with average tariffs set at 22 US cents per KWH and an industrial tariff of more than 30 US cents per KWH. The difference is supposed to be paid for by subsidy from government, but the availability of this financial support is intermittent and the International Monetary Fund has instructed the Sierra Leonean government to discontinue these subsidies.

The country’s electricity problems are rooted in the declining capacities of its power plants. Sources say that NPA finds it difficult to supply even at reduced capacity because it is unable to afford the cost of fuelling its generators. The informal sector appears the hardest hit by this electricity problem. As many Sierra Leoneans depends on the sale of iced water to eke out a living. With most small businesses having difficulties operating their refrigerators in the face of insufficient power supply, sales have dwindled. "We will continue to be poor if the problem of power supply is not solved," Mohamed Sesay, a petty trader, says. However, Solomon Moriba, an executive producer with West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR), says he believes that the Bumbuna hydro project will work. "By all indications we are hoping to realise it at the end of this year. Others have been trivialising the issue but I believe the government would have loved to see it completed before the elections, governments have come and go but the project is still there," he says.

Sierra Leoneans however are looking forward to see whether the completion of the BHEP will bring light to one of the world’s darkest cities. -Business in Africa Magazine (West Africa)

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