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How could solar power transform life in Sierra Leone?

Solar panels could bring electricity within reach of a huge proportion of the population, powering shops, universities and medical centres
Solar panels could bring electricity within reach of a huge proportion of the population, powering shops, universities and medical centres

Sierra Leone is leading the way in using solar energy to combat other social problems, but what are the next steps, asks Stanley Ellerby-English?

Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, is often called the “the world's darkest city.” It is not hard to see where this name comes from, since only 10% of Sierra Leoneans have access to electricity from the national grid. This situation is bad enough in large cities, but it only gets worse in rural areas where, according to the World Bank, just 3% of people are served by national power infrastructure.

Access to energy has become a privilege for people living in Sierra Leone, and it is heavily tied to relative levels of wealth. Only the rich can afford to run personal diesel generators that can step in when there are general power cuts. Everyone else has to turn to cheaper and more unreliable solutions, such as gas lamps or candles. Improving the supply of energy is not just about switching the lights on, it can also be the key to broader social change.

A revolution in the making

This is what makes Sierra Leone's recent revolution in energy provision such an exciting opportunity. IRIN news reports that solar power is already being used to help light streets and charge mobile phones, adding to people's broader welfare. For example, solar street lights allow small businesses to continue trading even after the sun goes down, meaning more money for their often poor owners. Seemingly small changes like these can make huge difference to people's lives and can often contribute to other social goals.

For example, We Care Solar is providing electricity to up to 60 health centres, with the aim of reducing maternal mortality rates in the country – currently the highest in the world. Equally, other companies are winning contracts to build large solar plants that could help supply universities and community projects. However, it is in relation to smaller scale production that the really exciting progress is being made.

An SOS doctor takes care of a patient from the community in Bo, Sierra Leone
Solar energy could power medical centres round the clock, improving hygiene and healthcare, and allowing medical procedures to take place at all times of day

Small is beautiful

Indigo lights, made by Azuri Technologies, are one such example of personal energy production. They describe themselves as a 'solar-as-a-service' and enable poor people to overcome the sometimes prohibitive initial costs of tapping into this free source of energy. Instead of one big bill, they pay for the light over 18 months in smaller individual payments. The results are clear, everyone IRIN spoke to said the Indigo lights had already helped them save money when compared to conventional lighting sources.

Such small scale production has already been recognised as key part of Africa's energy future, in a recent report that looked at renewable energy more broadly. In Freetown and in other Sierra Leonean cities and villages, it seems that personal solar power could start becoming the norm. However, solar energy currently provides only a small portion of Sierra Leone's total energy needs, so more support is needed before this virtually unlimited source of power can be fully exploited.

Freetown is the home of one of SOS Children's three Children's Villages in Sierra Leone. Find out more about our work here.

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