Interview: Dr Maarten Voors, Assistant Professor in the Development Economics Group at Wageningen University

Maarten Voors is Principal Investigator on two EEG-funded projects; one is studying electricity and productivity in Sierra Leone and the other aims to assess whether electricity access can help to improve Sierra Leone's resilience to COVID-19. Read Maarten’s thoughts on the impact of electrification (both in general and during a pandemic) and how COVID-19 has affected research.


Your electricity and productivity (Electrifying Growth) study in Sierra Leone focuses on the effect of improving access to electricity for rural firms and entrepreneurs. With respect to that project: 

What kind of impact do you think electrification can have, both in general and during a pandemic? 

Electrification can act as an ‘enabler’ of other (productive) activities, allowing people to either improve their quality of life or increase their productivity and diversify business opportunities.

If done right, electricity could really speed up development. One could think of electricity having an impact on education (by increasing study time during evenings), health (by changing the way people cook, i.e. moving from wood/charcoal to electric), improvements in local clinics (by increasing opening hours and services offered due to cold storage etc), and wellbeing more generally (due to increased opportunities to socialise during evenings, enabling phone charging, cooling etc). For farmers and small businesses, improvements can come from improved (cold) storage, ventilation, drying, processing of agricultural goods, and development of services (cold drinks, entertainment etc). 

During the pandemic especially, electrification could lead to improved quality of health services by increasing the number of hours a clinic is open or even the availability of certain drugs requiring cold storage. 


What sort of productivity-enhancing technologies can play a role in increasing the benefits of rural electrification? 

You can imagine all sorts of appliances. These would range from machines processing agricultural goods that need drying (fruits, maize etc), cold storage (increasing shelf life) and processing (pounding, milling etc). All could help create value added and reduce perishability of raw products, allowing for integration in the value chain. 


Your study is measuring the social and economic impact of two interventions (subsidising connections to Power Towers and subsidising access to productive technology assets), introduced through randomised field experiments. Do you have any early findings or insights you can share? 

Not yet. We have done a lot of piloting, but due to COVID-19, and in discussion with our donors and implementing partners, we have had to delay the ‘full-scale’ implementation of the two main interventions to early 2021. 


How else has COVID-19 affected the study, and how have you and your team adapted? Have you and your team discovered new ways of working? 

COVID-19 forced us to adjust both our field operation and research focus for the time being. 

As it was not possible to continue fieldwork, we re-oriented our teams to conduct phone surveys and track the economic consequences of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone. The EEG sample is part of this study, and the baseline survey was extremely helpful in allowing the team to set up a database to quickly use for deploying phone surveys.  

This was also an opportunity to continue working with some of the other partners on the projects, who have also readjusted their focus. Because of the relationship established through the Electrifying Growth project, we were able to quickly coordinate and even complement efforts. 


You are also working on a further project that aims to assess whether electricity access can help to improve Sierra Leone's resilience to COVID-19: 

The data is being collected via telephone interviews because of travel restrictions – have you encountered any issues/do you have any advice to share with other research teams? 

A phone survey requires different techniques than an in-person survey, and also limits your set of options on the type of indicators you can collect. For instance, to measure household expenditure, often respondents are asked about their expenses over a wide range of common household items for say the past week. While this provides accurate data, it is time consuming. Phone surveys typically work well if they are below 30 minutes, thus limiting the scope for extensive modules. Rather, you need to think much harder about what are the most relevant indicators to collect in the short window of time you have available on the phone, and how to make sure all questions are as clear as possible. This is true for all surveys (also in-person ones), but it’s particularly important for phone surveys.

There’s a lot that can be said about other considerations when conducting a phone survey. Thankfully, a lot of ‘practitioner guides’ were released (or dusted off) as the pandemic was unveiling and researchers increasingly resorted to phone surveys. 


Again, do you have any early insights or results to share? 

Yes. Comparing rural towns with and without electrification, we find that just before the COVID-19 outbreak, electrified clinics have on average 27% more working appliances and 25% more vaccines/drugs stored in refrigeration. We see that this translates to increases in health seeking behaviour by citizens: people are 21%-26% more likely to have visited the clinic for common diseases (malaria and eye and respiratory infections), and 22%-26% for maternal health issues. 

Sierra Leone recorded its first COVID-19 case in late March 2020 and has since seen a steady increase in cases. The phone survey was launched in late April and we have been collecting data on health seeking behaviours daily since. We see that, over time, reported health seeking (i.e. visits to clinics) increases, both in electrified and non-electrified clinics. In fact, the pre-COVID-19 utilisation gap close to disappears. However, importantly, 5% of respondents say they avoid visiting clinics for common diseases. For electrified clinics, this reduces to less than 2% skipped health visits. In all, the data suggests that electrification increases clinic quality and thus utilisation. 


Do you think the pandemic will encourage governments to ‘build back better’, using low-carbon technologies to create more resilient and sustainable energy systems?

We hope so. One of the things that is common to a lot of countries like Sierra Leone is the heavy subsidisation of fossil fuels to keep them affordable. However, a lot of countries are seeing their economies shrinking as a consequence of the crisis – the so called ‘crisis within the crisis’ – and they are now pushed to think how they should spend their (more) limited budget. Some countries are seeing an opportunity in low-carbon technologies. At the moment however it’s too early to tell.