Liberia hydro plant powers businesses left in dark by war
Liberia is making a giant leap into an electrified future with the rehabilitation of a hydropower plant damaged during a civil war, allowing small businesses to lower costs and boost productivity.
The national grid of Liberia has until recently run on 38 MW of electricity, according to official figures, which is ordinarily enough to power just 38,000 homes in a nation of four million people.
Taken offline by damage inflicted by Charles Taylor's forces during Liberia's first civil conflict in 1990, the Mount Coffee Hydropower plant has undergone extensive repairs over the last five years with US, European and Saudi funding.
After the first turbine was switched back on in December, small businesses in Liberia's capital Monrovia are seeing a jolt to their operations as they join the grid for the first time.
Eva Kollie, a bakery owner in a northern suburb, had already bought electric mixers in order to meet customer demand, but the cost of using a generator to power them was "unbearable" she told AFP, sometimes amounting to $20 a day in fuel.
But since she was connected to the grid, she pays $50 a month to power the machines.
"The cost of production has been cut down by about 70 percent," said Kollie. "We are able to satisfy demands from our customers on time."
- 'New born baby' -
Power Africa, a US government initiative to bring electricity to the continent, describes energy as "the single largest component of operational expenses in Liberia for large concessions, industries, and businesses."
Off-grid solutions such as solar panels that have gained ground in east Africa and are appearing in nearby nations like Ghana have failed to make headway here so far, though the World Bank has just approved its first mini hydropower plant in Liberia's Lofa County.
"Electricity in Liberia is like a new born baby. The infrastructure was not improved and the training of people was not carried out," said Ian Yhap, board chairman of Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), the state utility running the Mount Coffee Project.
The nation's electricity problems are not limited to a lack of production, either, he added.
"People are stealing the power generated," Yhap said angrily, estimating that 40 percent of all power generated in Liberia is siphoned off illegally.
"When we were handed over the system we were told that there were 44,000 customers connected but in reality there were only 15,000," he said.
More than 15,000 new customers have been connected since Mount Coffee was switched back on, and LEC hopes to have 100,000 connections by the end of the year.
"The drive of the new management is to connect more people and disconnect those who are illegally using the power" said Yhap.
His focus was now on reducing costs for customers and making the supply less intermittent, addressing two top concerns of new clients, he added.
- More turbines -
LEC says the first turbine can generate a maximum capacity of 22 MW, and the second 22 MW turbine is due on line in the next few weeks after testing, with two more to follow by year's end.
Meanwhile the firm's campaign to connect more customers continues apace.
With fewer than two percent of Liberians on the national grid, by some estimates, the arrival of engineers to connect a home or business is greeted in many neighbourhoods as nothing less than a spectacle.
"I was sleeping in the afternoon when one of my employees rushed to me to inform me that LEC was connecting my business," bar owner Cleo Benedict recalled of one day in February.
"I did not pass through the normal routine where you have to go to their office and apply through a process full of headaches," Benedict added. "I was only asked to go pay $53 to be connected."
Since then her customer base has expanded as the price of a commodity best served cold drops significantly.
"I was selling a bottle of beer for 140 Liberian dollars ($1.40). With the arrival of the LEC current I am selling the beer for 100 Liberian dollars per bottle."
"I am making more profit," she said with a smile.