A local businessman has joined the effort to bring more electricity to Liberia, a West African country that’s still recovering from two devastating civil wars over the past 30 years, in an effort to save lives with solar power.
Gary Easton, owner of ARP Solar in Stewart, near Athens, said his own efforts in Liberia were seeded when he met West Virginian Charles “Chip” Pickering at an annual Earth Day festival a year ago. Pickering, founder and general manager of Pickering Energy Solutions in Parkersburg, began traveling to Liberia after the country’s second civil war ended in 2003.
Liberia has had a troubled past. According to History.com and infoplease.com, the ex-African American slaves moved there by the American Colonization Society, an organization founded to free slaves in America and return them to Africa, declared independence in the mid-1800s and were recognized by the U.S. under British pressure as the first democratic republic in African history.
Eventually, an oppressive “elite” class was formed by the 5% of Liberians who were of African-American descent. Although it was a small amount of the population, they formed a racial caste system that disenfranchised many. This contributed to two excessively bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003.
Easton and online sources agree that results of the conflicts have been devastating. The country has no real infrastructure – no postal service, public utilities and certainly no power grid. This, sources say, means among other things that health care suffers. Most people don’t have the luxury of a yearly checkup with a doctor; it’s simply out of emergency that a typical Liberian will find him- or herself at a health clinic.
It’s only “life and death situations,” noted Easton.
With the majority of the country having no access to electricity, solar power became a necessity for clinics to enable tasks that most people take for granted in a medical setting: The ability to store blood, insulin or even have the lights on while delivering a baby.
“They go from delivering babies in the darkness to Doppler fetal diagnostics to help save mothers,” Easton said. “It’s amazing what a small amount (of electricity) does there. A little goes a long way.”
To put the amount of power used at these clinics into perspective, the average home in Ohio and the surrounding regions where Easton installs solar panels with his company, ARP Solar, has the capacity of about 10 kilowatts of power to function. The panels used in Liberia only generate between one and three kilowatts, he said.
The smaller amount of power available in Liberia is stretched much further than in First World communities, according to Easton.
One to three kilowatts, for instance, is enough energy for staff at hospitals and clinics to no longer have to travel from village to village in order to find a matching blood type. Insulin can be stored, and surgery doesn’t have to be performed with a flashlight.
“It really hit home to me when the doctor was expressing, ‘I’d love to store a little blood,’” Easton said.
Easton brought his 16-year-old son with him on his journey to Liberia in February. An exceptionally impactful moment for both of them occurred, Easton recalled, when they met a boy who was a “shell of a child” inside one of the first hospitals formed in Bong County, in central-northern Liberia. The boy had no choice but to live inside the hospital compound due to his type 1 diabetes – the same chronic condition that Easton’s son suffers from. With an empty pharmacy near the gates, treatment options for the child were few and far between.
Another clinic the Eastons helped in February, with Pickering, was serving seven towns and 52 villages, according to Easton. Depending on their circumstances, some Liberians faced three-day walks in order to access health care.
Despite 60 solar systems being installed in Liberia in the last 15 years, many of them due to Pickering’s efforts and mostly in rural clinics, much more are needed due to the complexities of the country’s circumstances, according to Easton.
With no real postal service, Easton said, warranties on the solar systems are rendered useless. The cost of shipping is so high, a new system could be purchased for less than trying to repair an old system. When they send supplies via shipping containers, they arrive months later with no way to return the containers.
Liberian citizens have to be “amazingly resourceful,” Easton said, noting that a small amount of resources go a long way, and any repairs or maintenance require substantial ingenuity.
Additionally, Liberia’s climate has two extremes. It’s either extremely dry or extremely wet. The wet season renders many areas inaccessible and shut off from outside help. Although China has recently been paving roadways and helping develop other infrastructure, the areas that haven’t been reached have ruts as “deep as a (Toyota) Land Cruiser,” according to Easton.
China isn’t helping without a price. The country recently presented a deal to Liberia that offered $3 billion for its natural resources in the foreseeable future. Easton said the country is being taken advantage of “in almost every way imaginable.”
Easton said he plans to return next February and continue working toward a brighter future for Liberia.