During his state of the nation address in September of this year, president Barrow revealed that works are in progress to attain the 2025 universal electricity access goal set by his government. 685 villages will be electrified and the transmission and distribution systems of NAWEC modernized by the set deadline. A political commitment of this magnitude is essential particularly when backed by adequate financial investment and meticulous planning which not only contextualises reality but amalgamates the three dominant modes of electrification which comprises grid extension, mini grids, and stand-alone solutions to reach the desired target in a least-cost manner. Although the Gambia has shown some degree of preparedness by putting in place an electricity sector roadmap (2021-2040) with several planned electrification projects mainly backed by donor funding, the progress pace is somewhat relaxed and as such presents a gloomy future.
What remains a paradox is whether the country will reach its universal electricity access target by 2025 and even so, will the yardstick be village or household connection and at what reliability level will the power supply be provided? Universal electricity access has a very simple meaning. Make electricity available to all and sundry. It is a global target set by the United Nations intended to be achieved by member states in 2030.The task of reaching such an ambitious but highly desirable target has remained a critical challenge for many countries particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where 600 million people still lack electricity access as recently reported by the international energy agency. On the race to 2030 however, some countries have showed greater commitment and in fact backtracked the globally set target to 2025.
The Gambia, Senegal and Ethiopia are among such countries, but the latter two have made some giant triumphs which could not be said of the Gambia. Senegal for instance is operating the largest wind farm in west Africa with a total installed capacity of 158 megawatts in a bid to build its renewable energy portfolio and at the same time boost electricity access to its population. Ethiopia on the other hand is currently managing and running the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, the grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam, a project which was designed to transform the electrification landscape within Ethiopia and beyond. In contrast, the Gambia is yet to fully implement any large-scale power project and whereas the 20MW solar PV plant in Jambur is yet to be up and running after a long lag, the proposed regional 150MW PV plant is also in its infancy.
What even exacerbates the situation is that the current power system is just not up to the task to make any significant shift to reliable supply. As of 2021, the Gambia had only 108 MW available capacity from the total installed capacity of 147MW. The public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) have also reported a total power demand of 201 MW thus illustrating a supply-demand gap which needs to be filled to minimise the frequent load shedding and stabilise supply. According to the energy progress report which measures countries’ advancement towards the attainment of the United Nations sustainable development goal 7, the present total electricity access rate of the Gambia stands at 62.27% with 80.63% coverage in urban and 31.56% in rural areas. looking at the trend from the past decade (2010-2020), biannual electrification increase in the Gambia has been hovering around 3% on average and evidently, it can only take a quick and robust turnaround to make 2025 a realistic year for universal electricity access.
The Gambia will indisputably gain numerous benefits when electricity access is enjoyed by everyone and this ranges from overall wellbeing of the population, improved education, healthcare, as well as poverty alleviation and wider economic growth. The race against time will be a critical factor but that should not undermine quality just to score some political points. When the Indian Prime Minister took to twitter in April 2018 to triumphantly announce the accomplishment of his universal electricity access target, it did not take long for media reports to debunk the claims of 100% electrification which eventually led to the revelation that the government considered a village to be electrified when the grid is present, public buildings such as schools and health centres and 10% of households are connected. While such indicator is measurable, it does not reflect the core principle of universality which the Gambia must not only emphasise but as well ensure affordability and reliability by catering for the electricity needs of all in the most technical and economically feasible approach.