Off-grid solar companies draw on Ebola lessons to respond to COVID-19

Learnings from the 2014 Ebola outbreak are helping off-grid solar energy companies in Liberia rapidly implement precautionary measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

By Ewan Bloomfield and Carla Visser, Power Africa Off-grid Project

The Government of Liberia reacted swiftly to the COVID-19 threat, closing borders and calling for a nationwide shutdown in March 2020. Even before the first COVID-19 diagnosis was confirmed in the country, Liberian residents drew parallels between measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 and steps taken to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014–2016.

Nicholai Lidow, Chief Executive Officer of LIB Solar, noted that to protect staff and customers, his company “reverted to ‘Ebola procedures’ two weeks before the first reported case of COVID-19 in the country.” LIB Solar is a leading Liberian off-grid solar energy company receiving technical assistance from Power Africa to increase sales and expand operations. Power Africa’s support to LIB Solar includes market intelligence on funding opportunities and productive use of energy technologies; policy and regulatory advice; guidance on gender equity; and assistance with grant funding applications.

LIB Solar “fell back on old routines,” says Lidow, referring to the management staff’s personal experience of implementing preventative measures during the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak. These measures may offer lessons for off-grid solar energy companies in other settings as well.

Handwashing station outside of LIB Solar’s offices in Liberia

LIB Solar’s initiatives to prevent the spread of disease include the following:

  • Raising awareness among staff and sharing information from the National Public Health Institute of Liberia;
  • Ensuring that staff are all familiar with the company’s emergency response procedures;
  • Encouraging good hygiene and social distancing practices through clear signage;
  • Setting up handwashing stations at the entrance to their office, to be used by staff and visitors;
  • Prohibiting handshaking and other physical contact;
  • Screening of staff for COVID-19 symptoms, through temperature checks and other measures;
  • Routinely disinfecting office surfaces and vehicles using a bleach solution;
  • Having non-essential staff work from home;
  • Enabling call center operators to continue calling customers regarding payments and service issues, but from their homes; and
  • Donating and distributing tap buckets, bleach, and soap for handwashing stations in rural communities.

Payment collectors traveling alone on motorbikes continue operating, but maintain physical distance and carry bleach to disinfect surfaces as needed.

To ensure business continuity, LIB Solar is:

  • Leveraging mobile and digital technologies to regularly communicate with staff and suppliers;
  • Assuring core staff of their full salaries for as long as possible;
  • Educating community representatives on using mobile money for energy transactions; and
  • Advocating that the Government of Liberia recognize off-grid energy as an essential service that provides lighting and communications to rural communities.
LIB Solar payment collector on his motorbike in rural Liberia
LIB Solar payment collector on his motorbike in rural Liberia

As LIB Solar’s customers live in rural areas and rely primarily on farming for their income, the company believes their business will be insulated from the worst economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company is, however, anticipating an increase in late payments from customers due to general macroeconomic conditions, and will demonstrate repayment flexibility given the economic hardships many are facing.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have severe effects across sub-Saharan Africa — including on the off-grid energy sector — but there are valuable lessons from past epidemics that can be translated to the current context to help guard companies and their customers from the worst impacts. Throughout the pandemic, Power Africa will continue to support off-grid energy companies like LIB Solar to conduct scenario planning, maintain liquidity, and take other steps to ensure business continuity.

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