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A personal story: bringing light to 250,000 poor people in rural Ethiopia in two years

Created Aug 13 2015, 12:00 AM by Raluca Georgiana Golumbeanu
  • Energy

I remember vividly the day when out of the blue, I got an email saying that I would be appointed the team leader for the GPOBA funded Ethiopia Electricity Access Rural Expansion project.


Nobody told me, nobody asked in advance.  There it was, and I had to act.


It was both tremendously exciting and daunting.  I had led energy projects before, but this was my first time leading an OBA project and this project in particular was a challenge. Back when it began in 2008, the World Bank had granted $US8 million to increase connections in rural areas to Ethiopia’s electric grid for poor households, run by the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo).  Then came a severe drought, causing a crisis for the country’s planned hydropower capacity.


In short, no water, no power, so no project results.


The government put moratorium on connections for two years, which had just ended when I came on board in 2011.  At that point, there was a backlog of half a million people waiting to be connected—with zero connections having been achieved until then. 


I had a mere six months to demonstrate that this project could work, or else it would be over. The project supported EEPCo to provide an interest rate free credit scheme to poor households in rural areas to make the connection charges affordable for them and two free compact fluorescent lamps to reduce the bills. OBA’s promise to bring a pro-poor focus to the utility action plan for access scale-up at that time was even more challenging. 


One source of inspiration for me during this daunting time was the mentorship of the project’s former team leader Luiz Maurer, who had moved to another department. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about the energy sector, so understanding and so committed to help. In particular, he was a superb advocate for the client, explaining with great clarity the hurdles the utility was facing to reach the last mile of electrification.


Luiz’s exuberant energy and passion inspired me to push forward.  I took this project personally.  Maybe there were other, larger projects with more funding out there, but this one meant something to me.  Until the very last minute, we didn’t know if it would work, but I was super motivated and determined to try.


From day one, I engaged in an intense dialogue with the team working on this project, the government and the utility.  It was a rare day that I wasn’t communicating with them by phone, email, or in person.


I developed close connections with my Ethiopian partners, who helped me navigate their bureaucracy, just as I helped them to navigate ours.  We had an open dialogue on how to restructure the project, to make it move faster to demonstrate real results so that this vital work could continue.   


Together we got the job done, adjusting the timing of the subsidy to encourage more immediate connections and working as a team to identify solutions to other bottlenecks.


This was not my first time working in a developing region, or in Africa, and I was impressed by Ethiopia’s distinct business culture.  When my Ethiopian counterparts said they were going to do something, I could count on them to do it. Moreover, the job could not have been done without instrumental support from my colleagues located in the field Raihan Elahi, Yusuf Haji Ali and Issa Diaw and valuable technical guidance of Chris Ratnayake.


I also enjoyed the Ethiopian style of business:  both results-oriented, yet personal.  After difficult missions, we would go together to wonderful restaurants that reflected the great diversity of the country’s various regions, and we enjoyed dance performances by local performers. Everywhere I went, in their museums and markets, I saw the great pride Ethiopians took in their history and culture.


At the end of my first exhausting yet intensely rewarding six months, our project got the go-ahead to continue. I felt extremely proud, and I was even more excited a few years later, when the project closed and I saw that in just two years (2011-2013), 250,000 poor, rural people, or roughly 75% of all the electric connections in the country, had been connected to the grid thanks to this GPOBA project. 


In a massive organization like the World Bank, sometimes you can feel swallowed up, like you are just a small part of a big bureaucracy.  At moments like these, however, you realize just how much a small dedicated team really can make a difference. Special thanks to Luiz, Issa, Raihan, Yusuf and Chis for their admirable commitment to bring light to poor people in rural Ethiopia.