My baseline: Momo Varney’s tailor shop in downtown Monrovia.
2012: I visited the shop back in 2012 as I did to so many others while I occupied that position. The stories I heard during these visits were the reasons we championed the restoration of cheap electricity to Liberia by prioritizing the rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee Hydro Power Plant just outside Monrovia - destroyed during Liberia’s protracted conflict - and three thermal power plants that would give Liberia close to a hundred megawatts of on grid power (zero megawatts in 2006) to begin a transformation process of the Liberian economy. That tailor shop in downtown Monrovia had what every shop owner longs for: customers. But the unreliable supply of power posed a serious threat to his business in 2012.
Outside Monrovia, the power situation was even worse. Businesses and individuals with access to the national grid paid 54 cents per kilowatt hour - one of the highest rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. But for the vast majority of Liberians, electricity was simply unavailable. Some businesses relied on expensive diesel generators, at a cost of up to $4 per kWh.
Things started to change in 2012, when the government bet its legacy on investing in energy to lay the foundation for economic recovery, targeting moving Liberia from an 8 to 16-hour economy through cheap electricity and improving the business climate. Don’t get me wrong…though more needed to be done to get all sectors moving, this was the entry point because it was identified as the binding constraint to shared growth in Liberia. A public-private partnership (PPP) structured by the Government of Liberia through LEC with Manitoba Hydro and with support from development partners resulted in new electricity connections, helping the government jump-start efforts to rebuild the country’s electricity infrastructure.
2017: Initial results
I revisited Mr. Varney’s shop recently after the dedication of the government’s marquee project in December and this is what Mr. Varney, 43, said, “We were using manual machines but it was hard to give the customers their clothes on time.” “Later, when we bought five electric machines to boost our operation, but we were catching hard time with stable current.” More people are now connected to a steady supply of affordable electricity including Mr. Varney’s shop that is powering their homes and businesses in Monrovia and the Ganta to Zwedru corridor for the first time in 20 years.
Mr. Varney, who owns the tailor shop, now spends about $250 per month on electricity - down from the $1,200 he used to spend monthly in 2012 on gasoline and maintenance of generators, and the impact on the productivity of his tailor shop has been dramatic.
With cheap lights and more machines running on electricity, Varney’s customer base has expanded beyond the capital, increasing profits for him and income for the tailors he employs, especially during the just ended holiday season. He has also hired 15 additional tailors. Now, the only thing that interferes with the sound of his sewing machines is the steady stream of customers through the door.
The government has delivered on its promise. Though more is still needed, the potential is now in Liberia for small businesses like Mr. Varney’s to grow and put Liberians to work. They must now prioritize them for connections and other incentives so they can grow and fuel the economy toward diversification and two shifts to meet domestic demand, leading to employment for Liberians’
Editor’s note: Amara M. Konneh served as Liberia’s first Minister of Finance and Development Planning before taking up assignment with the World Bank Group in Kenya. The views expressed in this article are entirely his and may not represent the policy of this paper.