22 February, 2021 Member article

Local Innovation: Creating a Foundation for Success in Rural Liberia

After several years of working closely with the people of Totota, Liberia, NRECA International in partnership with USAID/Liberia collaborated with this rural community to establish an electric cooperative in 2018 to bring them affordable, reliable and safe electricity. In less than two years, the utility became self-sufficient, has met all operating costs, paid employee salaries, and amassed a modest cash reserve with no subsidies from the Liberian government.

Electricity is generated from a solar hybrid mini-grid that will ultimately provide service to about 2,000 people. Since 2018, more than 1,500 people in 341 households and businesses have access to reliable electricity. This has given a much-needed boost to the town which is located along the major route that connects Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to the rest of West Africa. Having access to electricity from the mini-grid has helped support economic growth in Totota, where small businesses now provide cold storage for fish, meat and other food that can be sold to travellers.

Fostering a culture of creative solutions in challenging environments

Totota Electric Cooperative (TEC) now has three full-time technicians and two line workers, who report to an operations director, a commercial manager and a general manager who reports to a local board of directors. NRECA International continues to provide TEC local staff with technical assistance and training so they can continue to operate independently and have the capacity to improve. While much of this was done before the pandemic closed borders, today one NRECA International staff member in Totota has served as the single onsite support to help the cooperative keep things running.

Realising that information is critical to ensure productivity and operations remain strong at TEC during these challenging times, Aaron Mineen, NRECA’s onsite senior engineer developed the TEC Dashboard, an automated web-based monitoring platform for the entire utility’s operations. The application was populated with key performance indicators and data needed to inform NRECA International and TEC staff of the utility’s commercial and technical status in real time. This includes energy use, power outages, peak load, commercial data on bill payment, customer map, and more. This data feeds many reports, to include monthly board packets to the TEC Board of Directors. The solution is similar to third-utility party software monitoring systems. While it may not seem cutting-edge to many in utility management, the environment in which this idea was born and implemented should be recognised not just as innovative but lauded as necessary and critical to its future success in these remote areas.

Prior to this, manual data collection was very cumbersome for TEC’s monthly analyses and reports. Digitising this process has not just changed Aaron’s workload, it has improved the quality of TEC’s monitoring and evaluation systems, ultimately improving the operational efficiency of the co-op.

Encouraging independent, local innovation

Innovation isn’t defined solely by sophisticated solutions using advanced technology. Human centred design, when people have the ability and freedom to present creative ideas that can be tested and eventually implemented to improve systems they require, is what is truly innovative. The TEC Dashboard will be used to inform staff regarding system operations, the financial performance of the utility, and present a transparent view of the co-op’s performance to both internal and external stakeholders.

In remote areas like Totota, expensive third-party software solutions are not readily available when things go wrong. To make sure that utilities like TEC remain successful, NRECA International continues to recognise the importance of capitalising on local and available resources – the sun for power, and grassroots ideas and creativity to keep the community powered for generations.