What I learned about energy poverty from my visit to Liberia

Faith at ONE blogger Joe Mason recently traveled to Monrovia, Liberia as part of his work as a freelance journalist. Read how his trip ended up teaching all about energy poverty, a lack of access to the energy power systems that are necessary to sustain health and education services as well as economic growth.

My first experience with energy poverty took place a few months ago in a sweltering, steamy jungle that sapped my strength from the moment I arrived. Located on the West African coast between Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia held some unexpected challenges for a journalist like me, expected to produce digital content in this very difficult analog environment.

Previous to my arrival in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, I had acquired some experience dealing with short-term power outages. I knew what it was like to be inconvenienced by a natural disaster that wiped out utility grids in places like Port Au Prince, Haiti or Sendai, Japan. But I had never experienced living among people who regularly go about their daily lives without a reliable or affordable source of electricity.

Liberian Village of Pleebo

Conservation of battery power and daylight became my top priority as I tried to photograph images of life in Liberia. As I trekked to a village called Pleebo in the interior of the country, lodging options became limited. The stifling heat and suffocating humidity made sleeping a near impossibility. Much like in America, the natural answer seemed to be to crack a window. Unlike America, doing so let in a host of mosquitos, insects well-known for carrying diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

While my battles could be solved with a backup battery or a mosquito net, there are millions throughout Liberia and all sub-Saharan Africa that have to fight much harder for decent living conditions in the face of energy poverty. Without electricity, effective vaccine storage is at risk, and children are susceptible to diseases like measles and yellow fever. Streets are less safe, and homes are left dark – meaning that a student who may have to study after the sun goes down simply can’t.

Joe Mason's Trip to Liberia

Liberia’s two recent civil wars have left the country without any source of permanent electricity. During the wars, power lines and substations were completely destroyed by warring factions. Improperly built infrastructure left the country’s power grid vulnerable, and it was eventually destroyed in the violence. Some businesses in Liberia still rely primarily on generators, when they can afford to. One man that I spoke with mentioned that his gasoline bill consistently ran over $1,400 US per month for part-time energy usage, powering a modest building that also functioned as his home. But his story was not a common one. Most Liberians live without the “luxury” of electricity, which presents numerous problems.

As in many African countries I’ve visited, the children of this country get my attention quickly. They pose for my camera, giving me their best smiles, but these boys and girls are hiding a deeper hardship. They struggle with school in the absence of consistent electricity to power their classrooms or even to use when studying at night.They study under streetlights or read by the light of a campfire, which doesn’t allow them to fully prepare for the next day’s classes.

Classroom in Liberia

The harsh truth is that most children in Liberia will struggle to live productive, healthy lives. But we can change the course of history in Liberia, if we have the willpower and focus.

As believers, we must collectively raise our voice to help our African brothers and sisters live with dignity. We must have compassion, and we must do what is right. Throughout scripture, we read of Jesus’ concern with the human condition. He expects nothing less from us.

When we make our voices heard, our lawmakers and our leadership will begin to hear the truth about the lack of energy access and its effects in sub-Saharan Africa. Smart development programs and intelligent public-private partnerships designed to bring African countries access to sustainable energy sources and cleaner natural gas can be the difference between a continent that struggles to survive and an energized continent that can truly thrive.

We have to put this urgent need on the agendas of the world’s decision makers and investors in the private sector. We must be the voice for the boy struggling to survive his third bout with malaria. We must be the voice for the girl struggling to read her textbook by streetlight, the only hope she has in attaining a better life for herself one day. We must speak out. We must be their voice. The time is now, and we must act.

All photos can be credited to Joe Mason.

Interested in learning more how you can help address energy poverty in Africa?

Sign our petition to bring energy access to the world’s poorest countries here.