Energy is needed to build up a land destroyed by war, but only 1 percent of South Sudan’s estimated nine million people have access to the grid. Capital city Juba goes for weeks without power and even in places with an electricity network, the supply is nonexistent or, at best, unpredictable. One exception, however, is Yei, where power is provided to the people by the people.
By Anne Haaksman de Koster, Yei
In this town close to the Ugandan border, even after sundown, streetlights shine, residents stroll along the main roads and fans watch football matches in bars. Yes, at midnight darkness wraps Yei, but considering that power goes on every day at 7 AM, this is a success story.
Following the Sudanese civil war, the immediate establishment of a grid was intended to help rebuild Yei. In 1997, the town had been captured by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and, throughout its control, was heavily bombed. That ended in 2005 when south and north signed a peace agreement.
Initially set up with USAID money, the power supply network was not handed over to the local government or, for that matter, any state-owned company. Rather, in 2010, it was given to Yei Electric (YECO), a cooperative whose leadership is chosen by and among its members, who are also the very consumers of power.
Thanks largely to the return of many South Sudanese refugees, the population of Yei has grown in the last seven years from some 150,000 to a half-million. City power is a major reason this is now a booming town, and new businesses are thriving.
Hairstyling by night
Aisha waits inside her tiny, cramped salon for the first customer of the day. The rollers are warming up. Music is blaring out of the stereo tower.
Five clients a day is her average business. She charges 10 South Sudanese pounds (about 1.75 euro) for shampooing and 80 pounds (14 euro) for hair extensions, plaiting and weaving. Still, Aisha cannot afford to buy and operate her own generator, the cost of which can easily run up to 1,000 pounds (175 euro), plus fuel charges.
However, the hairdresser does not have to struggle to get fuel-filled jerry cans because a cable connects her salon to the city power. She started her salon three years ago, when she came to Yei looking for business opportunities. Her salon is now one of more than 1,200 connections in the town.
Thriving new business
“Creating a hospitable business climate is what the cooperation wishes,” says Bullen Kajomere, a member of YECO’s board of directors. “Since 2006, there are street lights along the main roads, the city is safer and people can work under the light of the lanterns.”
Kajomere adds that Yei has been able to bring in colleges and big corporations, like telephone service providers and mineral water companies. “This stimulates our economy and creates work,” he says.
Unlike Aisha, Duku has a generator. “We depend on power and that is why we have a backup generator," he explains. “This helps when the price of city power is too high.”
But both entrepreneurs can cite YECO's exact tariff for any given day. Due to changing fuel prices, it varies between 1.50 and 2 pounds per unit. Kajomere acknowledges the fluctuations. “But we maintain our services and have a reasonable and stable deal for fuel delivery,” he adds.
The cooperative puts a lot of effort into training staff not only technically, but also when it comes to providing service to the community. According to the YECO board member, one reason prospective customers have had to wait before getting connected is because the cooperative wants to avoid an “overstretch” of equipment and staff. “We do not want the bulb to go black,” Kajomere says.
The extension of the grid is slow-going, but news of its success is spreading. While most businesses and houses in the town centre are connected, thousands of people in residential areas can only hope to get power in the future. In fact, they continue to struggle with candles and battery lights. Yet representatives from other cities regularly visit YECO to see whether they can copy Yei’s power plan.