When Richard Fahey returned to Liberia in 2009 to observe and discuss land disputes in the North Eastern part of the country, he was shocked to find that the country had gone backwards from when he was a volunteer in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
Years of civil wars had greatly diminished human capital and had hindered the post-conflict country’s efforts toward development.
So, when Fahey and the group of volunteers he had been traveling with met with then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he thought that the expected 15 minute conversation would give him just enough time to raise his concerns about development and recovery in post-conflict Liberia. But 15 minutes turned into two hours with the president.
“She turned the tables on me and said, ‘You know, we view the Peace Corps as part of the diaspora of Liberia,’” Fahey explained. “‘You all were here and lived with us, and are really part of our culture and society, so you should come back and do something to help raise the country.’ My bluff had been called.”
Fahey had spent his professional career as an attorney, but upon returning to the United States, he decided that he was ready to move onto something new. He applied and was accepted to the Advanced Leadership Initiative program at Harvard University, a program that was created to help those finished with their professional careers move into the social impact sphere.
“What I really wanted to do was to see if there was a way to start on a big scale to do something to bring some relief to the situation in Liberia,” Fahey said. “And I thought the thing I could do was help with the power aspect.”
That thought was the genesis of the Liberian Energy Network (LEN).
The “Least Electrified Country in the World”
Fahey describes Liberia as the “least electrified country in the world,” and he knows many would agree with that statement. A 2018 USAID report showed Liberia’s electricity access rate at 12%, one of the lowest in the world. And while the government is working with development partners to rebuild its electricity infrastructure, they are up against a number of challenges.
Efforts to build out the grid — what people would recognize as a traditional power system — have been limited. Even if the decades of work and billions of dollars were to be invested into fully building out the grid, Fahey explained, only around a third of the country would be served by that system.
What is often taken for granted in countries with built-out traditional power grids can be a rare commodity in Liberia. Take, for example, the ability to charge cell phones.
“Cell phones are quite ubiquitous in Liberia now,” Fahey said. “Everyone has at least one cell phone. But, in order to keep your cell phone running, you have to have access to power to charge it.”
When Fahey first did a market study to understand power in Liberia, he and his team found that people were spending about one quarter of their annual income to charge one cell phone. This did not include buying credit. It was indicative of just how burdensome it was for people to not have access to real, reliable, and affordable power, Fahey explained.
And this is not the only part of society this affects. Health care doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, Fahey explained. Babies are born and people get sick at night, and no matter how good of a medical provider you might be, you simply cannot work if you cannot see, said Fahey.
“It impacts all of life,” Fahey said. “The country can’t develop unless it can get broad access to sustainable, reliable affordable power.”
The importance of real, reliable and affordable power was not lost on Fahey. And so, upon returning to the United States, he launched the Liberian Energy Network.
The Liberian Energy Network
The Liberian Energy Network, founded in 2009, focuses on bringing power to individual households in Liberia through low-cost distributed solar. Since its inception, LEN has grown to be the largest distributor of off-grid solar connections in Liberia. According to its website, it seeks “to help make Liberia the first nation in the world whose citizens derive their electricity principally from solar energy.”
“We didn’t start out to light a village,” Fahey said. “We picked some pretty big numbers as our targets. I mean, we’re looking to get out a hundred thousand units, which would get over half a million people access to power and light. We have big goals.”
The first units LEN brought to Liberia were small systems that had enough wattage to power a light and a cell phone. But when they tested out a couple of larger home lighting systems with a 6 to 10 watt solar panel, Fahey said, no one wanted the smaller systems anymore.
One of LEN’s objectives is to sell these systems at the lowest profit margins possible, at the lowest cost to its customers. Though LEN started out as a nonprofit, as the organization grew, Fahey decided to create a social enterprise in Liberia. But, while traditional business models mean that companies have an obligation to maximize profits for shareholders, the entirety of the company’s shares are held by the nonprofit part of LEN, eliminating the motivation to maximize the return in the for-profit business for shareholders.
“The pressure is not there to maximize the return in the for-profit for shareholders,” Fahey explained. “So we can really focus on what’s the most effective way to get basic power and light into the hands of as many Liberians as we can in as short of time as we can.”
But this is not the only unique part of LEN’s model. Fahey believes that it is LEN’s partnership model that has contributed significantly to the success of the company.
“We’re a little different than most of the off grid solar lighting distributors in the developing world,” Fahey explained. “Rather than trying to build out a huge network of people that we directly employ to sell a few lights a month, we look for partnerships with groups and organizations that are already successfully functioning in Liberia.”
These partnerships, the most successful one being with Liberian labor unions, have been able to focus on the “last mile” distribution in a symbiotic relationship. It saves LEN the cost of trying to build out huge networks to perform these functions, and the company pays its partners enough to cover their expenses and for the benefits these partners provide to LEN’s supply chain.
Along with a unique economic and organizational model, LEN also has the power of being completely Liberian-driven.
Liberians Solving a Liberian Problem
Traditional models of development rely heavily on foreigners coming into a country and trying to solve problems for people, Fahey explained. But Fahey believes that this model assumes that Liberians are not capable of solving their own problems and rebuilding their own country. LEN seeks to challenge that assumption.
“There are human resources there that can do this work and should do this work,” Fahey said. “And frankly, they know how to solve the problems better because it’s their country, it’s their space and they know how it works and how to navigate around the barriers that would be difficult for expats like me to navigate.”
Fahey believes it is critical — if it is going to be sustainable — that it is run by Liberians from the top down. And he felt that if they could make the LEN model work in Liberia, it could work in many countries.
Hardships & Hope
There are many challenges LEN faces moving forward. Finding the capital in order to be able to scale has proven especially difficult, according to Fahey. And, in Liberia, commercial lending institutions are quite underdeveloped, which Fahey explained does not help the situation.
But Fahey is still hopeful. LEN is gaining traction, and is beginning to attract the capital necessary to fulfill its potential. Fahey believes that LEN is moving into a position where it is able to attract the financial resources necessary to turn LEN into a “vibrant enterprise.”
Low-cost distributed solar is a new market all over in the developing world, Fahey explained, especially in Africa. Everyone is experimenting, trying to answer the question: how do you successfully do this, make it sustainable, and do all of it at scale? All Fahey knows is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“We’re not the only model,” Fahey said. “And in some places we might not be the best model. But our feeling is that if we can make this work in Liberia, that it does become a model that could be adapted and replicated in other places, certainly throughout Africa and maybe beyond that.”