Sierra Leone pylons

Interview: Simon Trace, Principal Consultant, Natural Resources & Energy, OPM

What is your role on EEG?

We have two types of research happening as part of this project. A global focus looking at subject-oriented projects and then a set of research programmes linked to particular countries. My main focus has been on the latter, in particular in Sierra Leone where we have commissioned a range of research looking at energy provision and its impact on economic growth.  

DFID, the funder of EEG, is particularly interested in Sierra Leone as it signed an energy compact with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Energy to look at off-grid access. It is also funding projects including the rehabilitation and extension of a shared grid between the two towns of Bo and Kenema together with a project with UNOPS developing ninety mini-grids in rural locations.

Sierra Leone has some of the lowest access rates to electricity in the world. Only 30% of the population have access in urban areas, and around 1% in rural areas. 50% of the installed capacity comes from sources not linked to the grid, such as small scale privately owned generators used to run shops and small businesses.

This staggeringly low provision and the informal nature of this access, together with existing DFID interest and investments in the sector in country, provides a strong rationale for EEG choosing Sierra Leone as one of its focus countries for research.

My task has been to scope out the research, oversee the call for proposals and support the commissioning of this research.  Importantly, in our early design of this work we went to Sierra Leone and met with the Minister and Deputy Ministers of Energy, the Regulator, the distribution utility, donors, NGOs and researchers to tease out what questions they would like to see addressed through this research – answering the question of what would be most useful for them. We then pulled these questions together into themes, and asked everyone we had interviewed to rank them. This, along with EEG’s overall matrix of research themes, informed the final list of research questions.


What interests you about the energy sector?

Prior to joining OPM my background was in civil society, working on projects delivering access to basic services. I have worked for Practical Action and WaterAid and I have seen how accessing electricity and water has a transformative effect on people’s lives, whether that is at home, work, school or through public services. Access to clean water and access to reliable electricity supplies have similar impacts as they act as critical enablers for social and economic improvement.  

Access to electricity is fundamental. People need electricity in the home to cook, for light, for space heating or cooling, refrigeration of food, and for communicating with the outside world. But they also need energy for powering anything but the most basic of livelihoods and to provide important community services - imagine the importance of electricity in a hospital or health post for example. Lighting means emergency cases can be treated at night while refrigeration means life saving vaccines can be moved along a reliable cold chain from one location to another. As a result, there is a significant change in the quality of life of a household or community when they are connected to electricity for the first time. It is hugely noticeable.


What drew you to work on this project? 

I have a long personal association with work on energy access issues and feel that the EEG research programme really offers the opportunity to deliver some new and incredibly useful insights into how to deliver energy services more effectively to those who lack them at the moment.


What impact would you like the project to have?

To create a better understanding of how grid infrastructure can deliver energy access more efficiently across all social groups. Often grid infrastructure focuses on provision to industry or more affluent middle classes, bypassing rural populations (where the bulk of the global population without electricity lives).  I hope the EEG research programme will help us better understand how large-scale grid infrastructure can play a more effective role in tackling the energy access challenge for some of the poorest populations.

In addition, I hope that the EEG programme will challenge the sometimes superficial understanding of impact that often characterises policy making at the moment. Policy makers tend to assume that access to electricity directly leads to improvements in health, education and increased economic activity. In reality access to electricity is a prerequisite for all of these things, but often alone is not sufficient to ensure they happen. Access to energy is a kick starter, but it does not stand alone. The EEG programme offers an opportunity to see what else needs to run alongside improvements in access to electricity to unlock these benefits.


What have been EEG's biggest achievements so far?

From my point of view I am pleased that the Sierra Leone call for proposals encouraged a small, but high quality group of researchers to submit letters of interest, and that the research areas they will address are well matched to the needs expressed by the stakeholders we originally interviewed in Sierra Leone last year.


What are the challenges?

One challenge is that capacity within Sierra Leone to deliver this kind of research is low, and there are few international research organisations in the world with expertise in this area and strong links to the country. However we have been pleased, after the call for proposals to have attracted good quality letters of interest from well qualified research teams in this field.

Some of the questions we need to address and investigate in Sierra Leone will take time to answer. For example we will be looking at the Bo Kenema grid update and economic improvements, where there are aspects that are well outside our control. These sorts of investigations are always subject to their own challenges; we can want them to run on time to meet the needs of the EEG research schedule led by DFID, but this is not always the case.

The importance lies in delivering research that is valuable for policy makers, making sure that findings are not simply that this issue is complex and requires even more research. The challenge is making sure useful conclusions are drawn, and that these conclusions have roots that can become embedded in further research and practice.