This article was first published by NRECA International under the title, “Innovating and Leading the Cooperative Way.”
The cooperative business model has served as an innovative and long-proven solution to bring electric service to people without power throughout the world and, most recently, in rural Liberia and Uganda. For two electric co-op general managers in Totota and Kyegegwa, the answer is clear: The cooperative model is sustainable and makes lasting electric service a reality to improve lives for generations.
Aaron Massaquoi, general manager of the Totota Electric Cooperative (TEC), oversees an electric co-op that is located 80 miles Northeast of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. NRECA International and Texas-based Bandera Electric Cooperative helped establish TEC in 2017, and the co-op has operated a solar-powered mini-grid since 2018 that serves 2,500 people in a town that was without power five years ago. Today, TEC’s operations are economically self-sufficient and is a model of sustainable power that could lead to more electric co-ops in Liberia.
“The reason we’re successful is because of our cooperative model,” Massaquoi said during a recent phone interview. “Our members and the TEC staff see this co-op as their own, and by so doing, we always see it grow. They have accepted that this utility is for them and it’s a part of the community. If it wasn’t for this model, this power utility would have died a long time ago.”
Charles Matovu has a similar story. He is the general manager of the Kyegegwa Rural Electricity Cooperative Society (KRECS), located 120 miles west of Uganda’s capital Kampala. Established in 2012, KRECS now serves roughly 9,000 people connected to the national grid. In 2021, NRECA International co-financed a solar-powered mini-grid in Katiirwe, a farming village 20 miles away from the main office in Kyegegwa.
“We believe in owning, controlling and managing our own initiatives,” Matovu said about the cooperative model during a phone interview. “This kind of infrastructure can engage the community and improve lives for the youth. We are doing more than just bringing power. KRECS is engaging the people on how to use electricity productively and teaching the youth about the solar [power] system. We are doing something great here.”
Owning and Using Renewable Energy
In late 2022, the Katiirwe community celebrated the completion of the solar-powered mini-grid, made possible from support by NRECA International and CoBank. Families from 120 homes received power, and more than 50 small businesses took steps to strengthen the community’s economy by expanding and improving their services. Agriculture, specifically herding livestock, is the main source of income in Katiirwe. Matovu saw immediate changes when KRECS brought power to the town.
“Life has changed so much in Katiirwe. There is employment, small businesses are opening, the value of the land is increasing, and the farmers are saying, ‘my milk can be there for tomorrow,'” said Matovu.
In Totota, Massaquoi has witnessed the tangible signs of success that come with power, since the solar-powered system started providing electricity to the community. But it also poses a huge challenge to keep up with the demand.
“People are moving here from Monrovia and bigger towns because they want to benefit from electricity,” Massaquoi said. “We have four schools, three clinics—and two more clinics under construction. My biggest challenge right now is meeting the needs of the growing population and businesses, since the micro-grid has reached its maximum capacity.”
“Life has changed so much in Katiirwe. There is employment, small businesses are opening, the value of the land is increasing, and the farmers are saying, ‘my milk can be there for tomorrow.'”
Matovu has similar challenges with growth, and currently KRECS is developing a portfolio of additional mini-grids to power additional communities. “We are a co-op, community based, and our projects are capital-intensive,” he said. “People have their own perceptions, and we need to build trust with the bankers because without capital, we cannot move. Capital drives everything, and it all comes to financing. So, it’s a huge challenge, and it limits us to what we want to do for our members.”
These two electric co-ops have demonstrated that providing electricity access via mini-grids is reliable and sustainable. However, while billions of dollars are available from the international donor community for grid and off-grid electrification, there are no funds or financing mechanisms yet available dedicated to financing rural electric cooperatives in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In most countries, too little is known about rural electric cooperatives, making it difficult for them to receive serious consideration for capital to strengthen their operations. In other cases, mini-grid financiers exclude cooperatives in favor of for-profit electrification models with foreign investor ownership. This causes an entry barrier for electric cooperatives, preventing this successful model to substantially replicate regionally.
Both leaders have successfully implemented renewable mini-grids using a business model that is more than 100 years old. It is often overlooked because of the perception that putting people before profit isn’t sustainable. Despite the success of the electric cooperative movement in achieving near-universal electrification in dozens of countries—including the Philippines, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Bolivia and the U.S. over the last century—both Massaquoi and Matovu face challenges and headwinds in their local context.
“Energy is needed everywhere, and our goal at KRECS is to increase access and reach out to people who don’t have power, and to as many as we can,” Matovu said. “I am driven by making things happen for people who cannot do it themselves, so I will continue to have the positive mindset to learn, unlearn what doesn’t apply, and build networks and partnerships to reach our goal.”
“In the rural areas, people are eager to work together and come up with good solutions—especially with electricity, [because] it serves as a development agent. Electricity is life!” Massaquoi said. “For decades there was no electricity in Totota, but we took the mantle after NRECA International helped us, and we showed that what can happen in urban areas, can also happen in rural areas. However, we need additional funding to keep this utility an outstanding electric cooperative.”