Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak
Dr Maarten Voors
Electricity access and resilience to COVID-19
Can electricity access help improve Sierra Leone's resilience to the COVID-19 crisis?
Background, challenges, and context
While many studies have focused on how improved access to reliable electricity impacts people’s livelihoods, few have looked at how it can increase resilience and help populations cope with large health and economic shocks such as COVID-19.
Reliable power is critical for ensuring both the provision of and access to essential health systems. It can improve the quality of the health services provided, and citizens’ perception of the quality of those services, encouraging more people to use them. As such, health systems become more resilient.
The COVID-19 health crisis is likely to have started another more pervasive economic crisis. The United Nations estimated that at least 49 million people would be pushed into extreme poverty, undoing much of the progress that has been made over the past decades.
Access to reliable power potentially improves citizens’ and businesses’ ability to cope with economic shocks, both by mitigating the negative consequences or speeding up the recovery process and making overall populations more resilient.
In Sierra Leone, as in other countries, there were restrictions on movement during the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic activity decreased. Households and businesses with access to reliable power may have benefitted – helping to reduce losses in income, livelihoods, and food security.
Research overview and objectives
This project assessed whether having access to a functioning power supply improves economic and health resilience in the face of a pandemic. The primary research question was:
What are the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and response measures on residents, clinics, and schools, and do experiences vary across communities that have access to electricity and communities that do not?
The team conducted an impact evaluation of the Rural Renewable Energy Project (RREP), a large-scale electrification project implemented by the Government of Sierra Leone in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and funded by the FCDO. RREP is providing electricity connections to rural communities in Sierra Leone through the installation of solar mini grids. The team leveraged this ongoing evaluation and expanded its scope to assess if people in rural communities who have recently benefitted from the electrification programme were better able to cope with COVID-19 and the associated mitigation policies (i.e. lockdowns) compared to those without access to reliable electricity.
Changes in economic, food security, health, and education outcomes were assessed, along with people’s knowledge of the virus and of preventative measures to reduce infection rates, and their coping strategies.
Quasi-experimental methods were employed to study 54 communities benefitting from RREP and 54 comparison (non-beneficiary) communities, spread across all districts in Sierra Leone. The evaluation strategy was designed to compare how the two sets were coping with the COVID-19 crisis.
The team used pre-COVID surveys (conducted during June-August 2019 for the RREP evaluation) and post-COVID household phone surveys (carried out between 30 April to 1 October 2020 among a sample of 2,745 previously surveyed households) to collect data on key household and health clinic indicators. With COVID-19 being a fast-moving and likely pervasive crisis, the aim was to monitor key indicators over an extended period of six months to assess whether people were returning to normality and whether there were signs of recovery or further deterioration.
Community leaders (Town Chiefs and Mammy Queens) were also interviewed. Surveys and focus group interviews were carried out with clinic staff, and the team utilised clinic and school records to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on health and education outcomes over time.
Research results, key messages, and recommendations
The team’s research on the possible economic impacts resulting from access to electricity is expected to continue through 2022. Interim findings show that COVID-19 significantly decreased households’ economic situation and food security – but, overall, there were no differences between populations with or without access to mini-grids, either in terms of economic impacts or resilience to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced the average wage income for the communities with and without mini-grids.
The average working hours in the post COVID-19 periods significantly increased, suggesting people spent more time keeping their businesses running.
There are no significant differences in outcome trends between mini-grid and comparison communities. The team suggests one reason for this is that it takes time for the benefits of energy access to generate economic return (evaluating impacts over a longer period may show increases in economic activities dependent on electricity). In addition, the potential benefits may have been diminished because of COVID-19 and government-instituted lockdowns. Additional analysis carried out after the surveys that delivered these findings suggests that high tariffs and the limited scale of power provision under these mini-grid schemes also is likely to affect their ability to deliver economic impacts.
Food security outcomes
COVID-19 significantly reduced average weekly food expenditure across both groups. There is a large increase in the times households ate less-preferred food and whether household members (adults and children) had reduced portions – but there are no significant differences in trends between mini-grid and comparison communities.
Overall, 93% of all respondents knew any symptom of COVID-19, while 35% knew all symptoms. Knowledge of COVID-19 symptoms is equally distributed between mini-grid and comparison communities. These results are perhaps surprising, as they do not support the typical assumption that increased access to electricity increases access to information through information-communication technology.
Most community leaders were informed about COVID-19 by elected officials. The next most common source of information was the Ministry of Health app for phones. Significantly, more community leaders in mini-grid communities were informed by their local Community Health Centre (CHC) about COVID-19 than in comparison communities.
COVID-19 coping strategies
Consumption saving was the most common coping strategy, which 56% of all respondents conducted. Furthermore, 27% of respondents sold assets and 12% borrowed money to cope with the effects of the pandemic. A small but significantly larger share of people in the mini-grid communities used up their savings to cope with the crisis compared to the comparison communities. No differences in other coping behaviours can be found between the groups.
Early results revealed that electrified clinics have a slightly higher (3-4%) utilisation rate for people suffering from COVID-19 like symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose).
Data gathered between January 2019 and March 2021 shows that in CHCs with access to a mini-grid, more total patients per month are recorded, more patients (aged above and below five) visit, a higher number of births is recorded, and more households visit for ante- and post-natal care. This is likely to be because mini-grid communities are slightly larger in terms of population size and thus have more potential patients.
Electrified clinics have more hours of electricity each day, have more vaccinations and drugs in cold storage, and have more working electrified appliances. While this indicates electrification improves clinic quality, there are no meaningful changes in utilisation rates over time due to electrification.
There were no significant differences between the type of communities and school attendance or student dropout during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Across both groups, around 48% of schools provided alternative learning methods (via home study materials or radio).
The results signal that more than access to energy alone is needed to help people cope with a health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 set rural economies back, perhaps muting any positive change resulting from increased energy access. The data suggests that any gains made before COVID-19 did not put communities with access to mini grids on a different path to communities without access.
The team suggests that the government and international donors and practitioners should prioritise complementary investments to enable increased energy access to translate into economic gain, and in the case of crisis, into economic resilience.
This project aimed to provide evidence on the contribution a functioning power supply can make to resilience during a pandemic. It is hoped that the lessons learnt can help to influence future policy and energy planning approaches, but also help to assess resilience to other shocks, such as outbreaks of diseases and natural disasters.
Ministry of Energy (MoE)
Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS)
FCDO, Sierra Leone office
Ministry of Finance (MoF), Research and Delivery Unit
United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
International Growth Centre (IGC)