Liberia: Stepping Back Into The Light?

Monrovia, Liberia:

Manyango Mulbah, a 48-year-old assistant manager at the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), remembers the day the Mount Coffee Hydro-Electric Power Plant closed. It was late July 1990 in the middle of the rainy season and Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) was gaining on Monrovia.

From the LEC headquarters in the downtown part of the city, Mulbah heard stories from his co-workers who had been forced to leave the power plant by gun-wielding rebels. As the rains pelted down and the fighting continued, Mulbah knew the fate of the plant: If no one was there to open the heavy steel floodgates that controlled the movement of the water, the dam would burst. A few weeks later, it did.

“The entire dam was washed away, leaving the plants and spillway still standing,” says Mulbah. “I was so discouraged and despondent to see a multi-million dollar plant just washed down into ruins. Up to today we feel so bad.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the destruction of the dam; Mulbah says it was a result of ignorance – no one there knew how to operate the floodgates. But many Liberians still believe the NPFL deliberately destroyed it to “paralyse” Samuel Doe’s government in Monrovia.

“When the plant went down there was total darkness, everything went blank, our lives changed,” Mulbah explained standing outside a spare medical clinic in Raymond Camp, Harrisburg, a town near the dam where he grew up. “We could not press our clothes anymore with an electric iron; we could not heat water on our stove; we could not watch TV … We started living like primitive people, burning charcoal, which was not the way of our life here; we had to retrograde to that.”

This “primitive way of life” can be seen throughout Monrovia and the rest of Liberia: Women crouched over coal pots or ironing crumpled clothes with coal irons, men copying documents on the sidewalk with machines running on generators, children doing homework by candlelight, men and women bathing in the dark, and people navigating their way through potholed streets, their mobile phones acting as torch-lights.

Mulbah describes the electricity generated as a “gift from god.” When he was a boy, Mulbah watched the dam take shape under the direction of an American company, Stanley Consultants.

Families and schoolchildren would visit it on excursions. They would marvel at the movements of the huge concrete dam. However, the holy structure also had more material benefits for Mulbah and other ordinary Liberians. During the first two years he worked for the LEC as a young technician he earned $225 a month, a salary that afforded him a comfortable lifestyle and helped him support his mother and father and put his children through school. “When we lost the job, it hurt us so much,” he says.

Mulbah is now an assistant manager in the central office and lives in a three-bedroom house in New Kru Town, a seaside slum in Monrovia. Electricity comes from a privately-owned generator in the neighbourhood that often breaks down.
Damaging development

Of all of the infrastructural damage that occurred during Liberia’s years of civil war since the late-1980s, the destruction of the Mount Coffee hydro dam has had the most profound impact on the nation’s development. And the nation’s economy is only just beginning to recover from staggering war-time lows.

Built in the 1960s, Mount Coffee was the nation’s major source of energy, and lit up most of Monrovia as well as the capitals of some surrounding counties. Now, more than 20 years since the dam’s closure, public electricity outside Monrovia is almost non-existent and a mere 0.58% of those living in the city have access to it, far below the regional average of 28.5% and possibly the lowest rate of access to public electricity in the world, according to a recent World Bank report. Monrovia’s electricity is currently supplied by massive generators using expensive high-speed diesel oil that drives the cost of power up to $0.54 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), one of the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

During her election campaign in 2005, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf promised to “light up Monrovia” within six months of taking office. Yet while government buildings, hospitals and the United Nations have access to the grid, when night falls most of Monrovia is awash with darkness.

Clusters of mud huts edge the dirt road that runs by the Saint Paul River. The road leads to the dilapidated hydro-dam that sits about 30 km outside Monrovia. Some villagers stand engulfed in clouds of pungent smoke rising from piles of smoking wood making charcoal to sell for cooking, one of the most common energy sources in Liberia. According to Liberia’s 2009 national energy policy, 95% of Liberians rely on biomass, wood and charcoal for their daily energy needs. The government aims to ensure that 30% of the country’s urban population and 15% of those living in rural areas have access to “reliable modern energy services” by 2015.

The dam stands at the end of a road some distance from the villages and small towns, bare and picked clean during the war like many other buildings.

“When the plant was left abandoned, people began to take the light bulbs away, the conductors away; it became like a mine,” Mulbah says, referring to the amount of scrap metal stolen from the site.

The only trace of the dam’s old movements and strength are the rusty rotors that sit heavy and deep at the bottom of the four turbines.
The promise of renewed investment

The Liberian government, with the support of international donors, has promised to restore the dam and set the turbines in motion once again. The governments of Norway and Germany and the European Investment Bank (EIB) recently announced plans to finance the project and more pledges have been made from other international donors. The objective is to restore the hydro-dam to its pre-war capacity, when it generated 64 megawatts of electricity, and to make electricity more accessible and affordable to Liberians by the end of 2015.

The government also announced in the 2012 budget, yet to be passed by the legislature, that it would prioritise energy by contributing $10 million to the rehabilitation of the power plant and $20 million in transmission and distribution infrastructure in preparation for hydro-power. The restoration project will be run by Manitoba Hydro International, a Canadian company who took over the LEC’s operations in July 2010.

Following the inauguration of President Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006, efforts were made with the assistance of international donors to restore electricity. But the government had to start from scratch. All transformers, pulls and transmission lines had been looted during the war, and the LEC had been left without a single customer or cable. The reopening of the LEC restored power to government buildings, hospitals and other public facilities and established a customer base of a little over 2,000 people. Under Manitoba, the customer base has grown to 6,000. According to Chief Executive Officer of the LEC, Shahid Mohammed, the goal is to connect 21 low-income neighbourhoods and an additional 16,500 households and to provide public electricity to around 80,000 people.
A city in darkness

On the main dirt road running through Doe Community, a neighbourhood in Monrovia that has been earmarked for the rolling out of lines, the sun has set and the street is bathed in shadow. Plastic Chinese torches and lamps illuminate shack-like stalls selling staples: sugar, powdered milk, coffee, salt, canned sardines and biscuits. Giant jars, once filled with mayonnaise but now containing neon pink gasoline, balance on rickety stalls and glow in the night.

34-year-old Doris Sackie sits outside the front of her shop with her two children and separates vegetables under a battery-powered desk lamp. She is hopeful that the LEC will wire the community soon, allowing her to power the beat-up icebox that sits in the corner. Sackie harbours the modest ambition of selling plastic sachets of cold water, cold drinks and perhaps even food.

After nightfall, she prepares her meals and bathes her children. In semi-darkness she navigates between the rooms of her small house, aided only by a desk lamp and the tiny light on her mobile phone. The television, electric iron and icebox she once had in her childhood home in Jallah Town seem a world away.

“We want the LEC now,” Sackie says emphatically.

Further down the dusty road towards Clara Town, a poor community that once had piped water and was connected to the electricity grid, new posts stand tall in the night with thick, tight electrical wires extending between them. Clara Town is still in the dark but will be connected by the end of the year.

Bright lights from Freeport are visible in the distance, while the limited glow cast by mobile phone towers and the few street lamps in downtown Monrovia illustrate the limitations of the city’s electricity supply.
Electricity means growth

Liberia’s economy has grown significantly in recent years due to both the erasing of $4.6 billion worth of debt under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative in 2010 and the significant levels of foreign investment into the country during President Johnson-Sirleaf’s first term.

But the small West African nation continues to depend economically on large-scale concessions, as it has since it was established in 1847 by freed slaves from America. While cheaper and more accessible public electricity could have a positive impact on the everyday lives of Liberians like Sackie, the government and economic analysts are hoping that the restoration of the nation’s electricity supply will fuel Liberia’s economic growth and diversification.

Vaanii Baker, Programme Officer for Investment Climate with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is part of the World Bank Group, says that restoring electricity in Liberia is fundamental to the nation’s economic development.

“The biggest economic challenge [facing Liberia] is access to power and electricity because it permeates throughout the economy,” says Baker. “Power is the most critical thing holding back improvements in the business climate in Liberia.”

Monie Captan, president of the Liberian Chamber of Commerce, hopes that Liberia’s restored electricity grid will give rise to a manufacturing sector.

“No country is going to get growth if you don’t have it driven by exports or some kind of manufacturing,” says Captan, adding that Liberia should use its major natural resources, timber and rubber, to develop its own indigenous industries.

But Captan argues that the restoration of Liberia’s electricity grid has taken too long.

“We’ve lost seven years in restoring power and power is so essential for any kind of economic growth and even if we start now it is going to take another four years,” he says.

The Liberian government had entered into discussions with several companies about rehabilitating the dam – the most recent of which was with the Brazilian company, Vale, which expressed interest in undertaking the project last year. However, a final deal proved elusive.

Captan also claims the restoration of the dam will still be insufficient for the mining companies and other foreign businesses that use a high volume of electricity, and that these delays are leading to the emergence and strengthening of enclosed economies.

“The big concession companies that are coming in are basically building enclave economies that are self-sustainable; they are not going to depend on the government infrastructure for anything. They are building their own power plants and generating their own electricity, water – they build their own housing facilities.”

But the government and the LEC have plans to expand the project. Mohammed says that the restoration of the hydro-dam will be followed by the construction of a reservoir to make the dam operational during the dry season and create power stations along the Saint Paul River. The project should finish by 2018.

The government also announced in the budget that it will invest $15 million in building a heavy fuel oil power plant that will produce 10 Megawatts of power in 18 months. The Ministry of Finance argues that the completion of the hydro-dam project will reduce the cost of power by 50%. At $0.19 per kWh, energy would be more affordable than at present. However, with 63.8% of Liberians still living below the national poverty line according to World Bank figures and 94% living on less than $2 a day, as calculated by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s country briefing, electricity would remain unaffordable for many. “Cheap electricity will attract manufacturing, increase production and therefore the demand for new workers,” said a statement from the Ministry of Finance.

For the government of Liberia, the electricity generated could lead to positive and radical changes in the economy. It has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of Liberians. However, the future success of the project remains uncertain. Financing has only recently been secured and actual construction is yet to begin.

Despite the uncertainty ahead, many Liberians see promise in the project. Mulbah explains, “A number of people are coming back into this community. It was a promising community – it was booming because of the presence of the hydro. Now they have heard the hydro is going to be rebuilt. They are beginning to pick up the pieces once more. You can see construction … It’s like a beacon of hope for the people.”

Focus on the power situation in Liberia as nation celebrates 165 years of independence

With the help of renewed investment, the Liberian government hopes to rejuvenate the country's hydro-power.