Sierra Leone to Invest Heavily in Power
Sierra Leone is aiming to increase its power capacity tenfold by 2017, a plan the energy minister said should be driven by foreign investors despite the outbreak of Ebola and a history of bureaucratic difficulties.
Sierra Leone has recorded strong economic growth rates in recent years as major mining projects came online, but the broader recovery from years of conflict during the 1990s has been slow and risks being derailed by an Ebola outbreak that has gripped the country.
"We are open for business," Henry Macauley told a packed conference room in the London offices of Herbert Smith Freehills, a law firm advising the government.
The plan aims to increase power capacity to 1,000 MW by 2017, from a current level of 100 MW.
"The political will is there and the appointment of a new minister of energy will likely inject some impetus into an often challenging negotiating environment," said Shah Jahan Khandokar of law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, which advised on a $220 million deal to build a 128 MW power plant in the capital Freetown by 2017.
Some critics doubt the government could approve deals quickly enough to ramp up production in such a short timeframe.
President Ernest Bai Koroma appointed Macauley in July after dismissing his predecessor, Oluniyi Robin-Coker, in February on charges of incompetence.
Investors will be hoping that Macauley, an energetic former ambassador, can inject some urgency into the bureaucratic process.
He said he drew inspiration from Nigeria, where he last served as ambassador, whose power sector privatisation last year won praise from economists.
Stabilisation over the last decade since the war ended and the start of iron ore exports have helped Sierra Leone record double digit economic growth in recent years. But critics say growth has failed to benefit the wider population and corruption remains a major obstacle to business and social progress.
Macauley said increasing power output was essential to supporting Sierra Leone's mining sector, which drove economic growth of 20 percent in 2013.
"Our mining companies cannot compete with rivals in South Africa while they are running expensive diesel generators," he noted.A single thermal power plant will account for 500-600 MW of the new capacity under the new strategy, and will be supplemented by smaller hydroelectric and solar plants.
Sierra Leone will also build new transmission infrastructure to connect to the West Africa Power Pool, the minister said, connecting to neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Guinea in 2016.
Further obstructing foreign investment, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has prompted several governments to advise their citizens against travelling to Sierra Leone, and risks costing the country billions of dollars.
Hundreds of British troops are being dispatched to Sierra Leone to help the government battle Ebola, which has killed at least 879 people, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization.
The United Kingdom this week began screening travellers for the virus, and a group of U.S. lawmakers called for travellers returning from affected countries, including Sierra Leone, to be quarantined.
(Editing by David Lewis and Mark Potter)