'Wherever you need electricity you can use solar power,' says Alie Lamin, a feisty champion of green energy. He is a partner at Supreme Systems, one of five companies in Sierra Leone that are in the business of installing solar panels.
In a country where electricity is flickering at best, solar power could be the road to an energy-efficient future. The initial costs are high: between $2,000 and $4,000 for a three-bedroom house. But this is easily recovered over three years and the panels themselves have a lifespan of more than a decade.
People are slowly warming up to the idea - banks, NGOs and even villages. Lamin recalls installing panels for a couple of houses in the remote northern village of Tambiama. 'It was an old woman who convinced her son to install the panels and now those are the only two houses in the whole village that have 12 hours of power every night,' he says. Recently, a small community outside Freetown called Mile 91 was ushered out of virtual darkness by a donation of solar panels.
The problem is there's no education on the benefits of renewable energy. Lamin has been talking to the Freetown City Council about installing solar street lights but he knows that contracts are only handed out through a pecking order of favours. In the West African neighbourhood, Nigeria has already forged ahead with such an initiative.
In the provinces upcountry, solar power is being successfully used in water pumping and to run small businesses. A group of women who trained to become solar engineers through India's Barefoot Solar Engineers Program are now helping to electrify their own communities in rural Sierra Leone. The money however, is in Freetown. 'If banks start offering green loans to people like house loans then it would encourage more buyers,' Lamin adds.
At the 64th UN general assembly held in New York recently, the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, asserted that energy was one of his top priorities. He acknowledged the adverse effects of climate change and urged the developed nations to help poorer countries invest in clean and green energy. Lamin feels the Government needs to do more by way of reducing import duties for equipment which would also bring down the final cost to the consumer.
All around Africa solar power has proved to be a successful alternative to unreliable national power grids. In Liberia, USAID's Liberia Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) has been helping to develop an energy policy and demonstrating the benefits of solar technologies. However, in Sierra Leone awareness is still in its infancy. From isolated NGOs and homes, Lamin hopes that soon the country with join the solar footprint across the continent.