By Abraham Johnson, freelance writer.
Monrovia- Electricity plays a cardinal role in every thriving nation and the ones on their way to recovery.
For the private sector, it’s considered the key to economic boom. Without it, industries cannot be built and powered to keep the wheels of the economy turning. Kids cannot learn in dark classrooms during the rainy season when the weather is all but good. Market women stretching out their services till the night hours feel safer with a fluorescent bulb to keep them safe and visible.
‘Zzzzzzzzzzz,’ the bugs buzzed under the solar powered street light shining outside the fence of the J.W. Pearson School on Carey Street. Tamba Zinnah sits on the sidewalk under the light to do his social studies homework. He’s not a student at the school but is able to complete his homework nearby because of the solar light provided by ‘Light to Learn’ during Akon’s visit.
Around Monrovia, this is quite common – neighbors, families and even business persons have adjusted to sharing resources (light) in order to better their communities. Liberians share everything; and it is how they’ve managed to support one another over the years.
The once dark intersection of Carey and Johnson Streets benefitted from the energy and education collaboration of Bridge & Akon’s ‘Lighting Africa’ with a solar powered operated light-pole.
Just opposite the J.W. Pearson School is a small corrugated zinc shack with other small homes built nearby from leftover materials. You can see the history of poverty but the people find happiness in their communal way of life.
Middle-aged men are seated, having major discussions and interacting with their children. Drugs and other criminal acts linger by; yet, there’s a sign of hope that education remains vital for the youth when you see a child like Tamba focused and not distracted, hovering over his notebook keenly.
Six months ago, Liberia was sparking with chatter about Akon’s arrival and the ‘Light to Learn’ collaboration with Bridge Partnership Schools for Liberia, the Mimran brothers of TO: and Solektra. The launching of the initiative came few months before President Sirleaf turned on the switch of the first turbine of the Mount Coffee Dam in Todee district. Liberia has a long way to go with efforts to completely electrify the city – let alone the entire country.
Reports indicate that only 0.58 percent of residents in the country have access to electricity, according to a 2011 World Bank report. Outside the capital, it is virtually non-existent.
However, in some counties like Nimba, Maryland, Grand Gedeh and River Gee, thanks to the West African Power Pool Project (WAPP), poles are sprouting and the long cables are being connected to provide electricity. Soon, kids in the southeast that were once plagued by perennial darkness will have electricity to study at night. Families will be able to pursue higher learning, run their businesses, and help their children with homework.
Tamba and his family fall into the category of the many that don’t have access to electricity in the once war-torn Liberia. The government is doing its best to jumpstart the hydro which has been dormant for years. To-date, two turbines have been turned on to increase the capacity being provided by diesel-run generators by the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC).
While electricity is readily available to many homes in Liberia, it has also remained expensive. The LEC charges $0.54 cents per kilowatt hour. The tariff was dropped in March to $0.39 per kilowatt hour in an effort to expand affordability efforts.
For Tamba, the illumination from J.W. Pearson’s lamppost is the brightest way to light up his street to learn. Recent reports show that LEC is even going to put schools and churches at the forefront of their work.
So where do we go from here? Yes, the school in the urban city was a recipient, but what of the solar panels that were sent to Nimba? A recent visit to the Zuluyee School in Nimba is still benefitting from Akon’s ‘Lighting Africa’ and partners who saw the importance of combining energy and education in Liberia.
Local resident Mr. Sumo explained that he was surprised that the panels still worked. “A lot of times, we see NGO’s and other groups come to our communities to help. They do their best, and we understand that. But to have this put at our school is extremely beneficial to our children. Our community has access to it and we can charge our devices, and some of us come in the evening with lamps to read. We wish Bridge and their partners could extend this to all of the government schools one day. Something so simple like electricity to other countries is like gold for us in Liberia.”
During his visit to Liberia, Akon echoed powerful words of hope. The 44-year-old native of Senegal is no stranger to the grassroots humble beginnings on the continent. “The lack of sustainable power and the poor state of education in Africa affects everybody, but with this new initiative we intend to help solve that crisis,” he said during the press conference in Monrovia on October 20. “’Light to Learn’ will bring about the use of clean and affordable solar energy that will in return make schools use modern technology that will support teachers and students.”
PR Director for Bridge PSL Lloa Bass-Golokeh noted that “We’re working to make every step towards giving the Liberian children a brighter future possible. As a partner that infuses technology with our academics, it’s our hope that solar energy and education continue to help the education system in Liberia. Seeing every Liberian child on the route to getting their full potential is the best reward.”
Bridge is often at the scrutiny of educators and groups for their ability to expand the global reach of education to rural communities and countries in need of a robust approach to learning. Despite these accusations, it is evident that they want to see the children and communities succeed in their access to learning.
‘The Business of Education in Africa’ recently released a report with a foreword from President Sirleaf which takes a deep dive into the progress and challenges to date in shaping the education systems across the continent. The President notes: “We know we need to act fast to keep hope alive; and education is the single most important tool we have in rebuilding our nation. We cannot afford to wait. We need to act now so that we do not fail our children. Our government recognizes that we need to be creative and pragmatic about tapping into the private sector to contribute to the education of our children. One of our most important pilot initiatives in this vein, the public-private Partnership Schools for Liberia program, is among the case studies profiled in this new report.”