Implementing renewable energy in hard-to-reach communities in Sierra Leone

Kirsty Scott

22 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

We are looking at the fact that the whole world will transition to renewable energy at some time, largely because oil and gas itself is not an infinite resource. My Master’s course was preparing our minds in terms of the energy transition, what policy framework we should look at.

Veronica Koroma

In 2022, it was estimated that only 26% of the population of Sierra Leone had access to electricity, predominantly in urban and peri-urban areas. This is one of the lowest rates of electricity access in the world.

Despite significant improvements in energy access between 2000-2016, this was predominantly in urban areas and rural and hard-to-reach communities remain energy poor. The Government of Sierra Leone is committed to increasing access nationally and aims to reach 92% of the population by 2030.

In 2022, Commonwealth Alumnus Veronica Koroma was hired as a Health, Safety, Social and Environment (HSSE) Analyst for the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Sierra Leone. She provides effective oversight and support for UNOPS offices and projects in-country and ensures that HSSE performance requirements and considerations are met. She also facilitates training and capacity strengthening on HSSE tools and frameworks, especially for project teams and partners.

The role is new, and Veronica is the sole lead for Sierra Leone. Currently, she is involved in a World Bank-funded renewable energy project that seeks to implement solar mini-grids in hard-to-reach communities. Due to low socio-economic activities taking place in these communities, they are almost impossible to connect to the grid, however, the project hopes to change this in the next 10 years.

It is expected that the project will benefit approximately 3,000 households, 350 industrial and commercial businesses, 200 health facilities, and 500 schools that would otherwise not be electrified through grid extension in the next five years. Libraries in about 50 of the selected schools will also be provided with solar lanterns.

Environmental projects with community benefits

As an HSSE expert, Veronica’s role is to assess the potentially harmful effects of implementing any projects in the country, and she considers a range of risks and impacts, including social and environmental.

She stresses that in providing mini-grids and introducing energy access, it is important that implementers create as little burden on communities as possible in the short and long-term. Her assessments help to guide and support these considerations.

“You don’t want to come with a benefit that they [communities] wouldn’t be able to utilise. We want the project to be sustainable, so we’re looking at the social, the economic, and the environment. And I’m just in that nexus giving support and advice to the project.”

Understanding the social risks to communities in implementing the mini-grids project is critical to its success.

Hard-to-reach communities are typically culturally closed communities and therefore project managers and construction workers must understand how the communities operate to ensure they observe and are respectful of cultural practices and beliefs. Veronica also had to assess the power dynamics of people entering the communities to mitigate potential exploitation and ensure appropriate safeguards were in place. In understanding these risks, project implementers can build trust within the community and improve the implementation and uptake of the mini grids.

Whilst renewable energy has a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and moving away from environmentally harmful and unsustainable energy sources, Veronica notes that in Sierra Leone, previous attempts to move to renewable or more environmentally friendly energy sources to help energy-poor communities have caused longer-term environmental and waste-related issues. She shares that photovoltaic panels previously installed to provide solar energy started leaching towards the end of their lifespan causing significant waste issues and environmental harm.

Whilst she acknowledges their general gain in reducing GHGs and providing energy access to communities, they also created a new burden. As the only HSSE expert on the project, Veronica enjoys some freedom to make innovative contributions to tackle such concerns.

Whilst reviewing the project documents, Veronica supported the use of lithium ion batteries as opposed to lead-iron batteries. Lead-iron Batteries are typically cheaper to acquire; however, it has low energy storage capacity and is environmentally unfriendly due to the lead and iron components. Veronica proposed a switch to lithium batteries which have a higher efficiency and greater energy storage capacity. The challenge in proposing this change, however, was a significant increase in costs as these batteries are more expensive.

“When you pitch an idea, especially to a Project Manager, the first thing that comes to his or her mind is, will this result in a cost? A reduced cost or a higher cost? And that’s a challenge in environmental studies because it’s difficult to monetise the gains you make.”

Taking this into consideration, Veronica developed her proposal around the longer-term impact and benefits of using lithium batteries. With greater efficiency and storage, communities would be more likely to utilise the batteries as they would be more cost-effective, and the reliability of the batteries would support long-term buy-in. For the project implementers, whilst the costs are higher in the short-term, the uptake and sustainability of the project would be significantly improved.

Veronica is pleased to share that her proposal was accepted and supports the successful implementation of the project for both communities and implementers.

Putting skills into practice

Prior to this role, Veronica worked for the Environment Protection Agency Sierra Leone (EPA-SL) as a Senior Environment Officer for 8 years where her work focused on natural resource management and climate change. Veronica shares that this role was a perfect springboard to her current position, as she now acts as a bridge between UNOPS and the EPA-SL in coordinating environmental impact assessments (EIA). Understanding the EPA-SL requirements and those of project funders enables her to ensure national and international EIA requirements are met.

Whilst at the EPA-SL, Veronica found immediate application of the skills and knowledge gained during her CSC-funded Master’s in International Oil and Gas Management. She describes the course as multidisciplinary as it introduced her to practices in management, economics, finance, environment, and law. Understanding natural resource extraction was a key focus of the course, and involved studying the management of extraction, including sustainability and value for money.

Over the last decade, Sierra Leone has started mineral and oil and gas exploration in response to the discovery of oil and gas resources in deep-seated waters. Veronica shares that it is not economically viable to begin extraction until new technologies are available in the country. However, this has resulted in a new focus on natural resource extraction and Veronica was invited to join the Sierra Leone chapter of the Extractive Initiative on Transparency (EIT), a global initiative that promotes open and accountable management of oil, gas, and mineral resources.

During her time at the EPA-SL and as part of her role on the EIT, Veronica has supported projects related to mineral sector extraction. She notes that with her multidisciplinary background, she can assess and advise on a range of factors related to these projects and appeal to the interests of implementers, whilst keeping sustainability and environmental protection at the top of the agenda.

“With my background in sustainability, I give specific advice, not only about getting the resource out of the ground but also about making it sustainable. That’s where my knowledge acquired during my Scholarship has helped, because I have some background on economics and finance… it helps me to give a broader perspective.”

Creating community change-makers

Working with communities to raise awareness of climate change and the environment is an important part of Veronica’s current and previous role.

Whilst at EPA-SL, she was charged with monitoring and disseminating emerging best practices on climate change adaptation strategies, planning, and practice, through the implementation of small grants projects. This involved working with deprived rural communities, in particular women and indigenous groups, to build their knowledge on climate change issues and support them in applying for grants from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to implement climate-related projects.

Veronica’s role was to help communities formalise their ideas into grant proposals and link together community-based organisations and groups to form corporations to propose and deliver the projects. Many of the people she worked with were not literate and did not have the skills to complete the grant applications, but with Veronica’s support and guidance, they were able to bring their ideas together and create delivery proposals and plans.

Veronica notes that although programme funding is modest, it enables communities to take measured risks to tackle locally felt impacts of climate change and they can use a small initial grant to develop capacity for a larger project.

Veronica is proud to share the example of one group of 15 women who received a grant to deliver a project addressing climate change and waste management. Through the grant, the women were trained on the advantages of solar energy to replace kerosene and other fuels used for energy in their community, and how to install solar panels in their community. Following their training, they mobilised themselves to train women in smaller communities to implement solar energy and provide start-up kits. The group now provides solar energy consultation and installation at a cost, which has provided employment and funds to further invest in renewable energy solutions for their community.

“It was really impressive that there are people out there who just need the skills. Once they have these, and they have someone to guide them, they can do unimaginable things.”

The women are now climate change ambassadors in their community and Veronica continues to stay in contact with them to learn about their ongoing upscaling efforts and successes.

“I keep telling them: you’ve been an ambassador of climate change in that you’re a small group, but you can create a much greater and global impact. Because of what you’ve done, you’ve actually contributed to the global fight against climate change in your own little way. By just doing this small thing, look at how you’ve changed the whole world.”

Creating change in Sierra Leone

Reflecting on her career to date, Veronica is proud of the tenacity and determination she has brought to her roles to ensure climate change and environmental sustainability are at the heart of these. She is also proud to see positive change in Sierra Leone due to her contributions.

“My main achievement has been my desire for change and to create a better Sierra Leone. In other words, studying in the UK gave me the motivation needed to affect change in all areas of my life.


“Thus, I have been a change-maker everywhere I find myself, especially in the conduct of my work, passionately demonstrating professionalism, excellence, integrity, and enthusiasm. This has been evident in the career progression I have attained since my Commonwealth Scholarship.”

Veronica Koroma is a 2015 Commonwealth Scholar from Sierra Leone. She completed an MSc in International Oil and Gas Management at the University of Dundee.