The list of homes and businesses on Totota Electric Cooperative’s customer information dashboard is now more than 400 members long, and at the very top is Joanna Kollie’s name.

When Kollie switched her business—selling frozen meats and agricultural products like seed, fertilizer and water pumps—from diesel generators to service from the fledgling electric cooperative in north-central Liberia, she quickly became the largest electricity user among the co-op’s members.

She says the move to co-op power has allowed her to reduce her costs and help her neighbors.

“It has improved my business in so many ways,” she says. “My business has so many impacts on the community. … We help people and support them, so they can move up too, so they can grow.”

Totota EC began providing electricity in 2018, built from about $700,000 in contributions and volunteer work from U.S. co-ops and technical direction from NRECA International.

It has since emerged as a shining example of a successful local utility in sub-Saharan Africa, recently earning the designation as only the second licensed, independent electric service provider in Liberia.

After just three years, the co-op is able to cover all of its operating expenses, a feat NRECA International Senior Vice President Dan Waddle says is “a very big deal.”

“The assets that they operate were financed and donated by NRECA International,” he says. “They aren’t paying for those assets. They are, however, recovering sufficient margins to pay for all the operating costs: fuel, maintenance, salaries.

“It may sound to U.S. co-ops as business as usual, but the fact is that in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s pretty rare for that to happen. Most distribution utilities are government-owned and receive operating subsidies. Some recover less than 50% of operating costs.”

Totota EC also boasts a stellar payment rate of more than 98% from its consumer-members, similar to successful U.S. co-ops, Waddle says.

“The reason why people join the cooperative is because light is life. Light brings success,” says Joseph Scott, the co-op’s board president and a small-business owner. “Because of light in Totota today … we have success in the community.”

The availability of power after dark in particular has allowed businesses to stay open later, increasing revenues and providing more service to customers.

“Now we stay out late,” says Henry Williams, who owns a small grocery and liquor store in Totota. “When we didn’t have electricity, by 6, 7 or 8 at night, people would go home. But, because of electricity, people are still out here until 1 or 2 a.m.”

It’s also helped his family start a side business. With the electricity Williams has in his home, his wife makes ice and frozen treats.

“The children sell them and bring money home,” he says.

For Kollie, the benefits of reliable, affordable power go well beyond her business. Her children “are happy because they have time to watch their movies, they have time to study their lessons.

“Because of the electricity today, we are secure,” she says. “We appreciate it so much.”

A vibrant way station

Totota’s entrepreneurial spirit was a key reason that NRECA International chose the location to help create a co-op, Waddle says.

“We selected this particular town because it’s on this major highway and has a large number of enterprises,” he says. “The emphasis was on connecting not just houses but businesses, which are generating revenue.”

Totota lies along a busy road that runs east-west through Liberia to Ivory Coast. Reliable electricity has helped turn the already bustling town into a vibrant way station.

“Totota is now an island of refreshment on the long trek from the capital city of Monrovia to Ivory Coast,” Waddle says. “Travelers can stop, have a cold drink and watch soccer on television before they continue their long journey through town after town without electricity.”

To help both the co-op and local shops, NRECA International worked with CoBank on a program to provide loans for businesses to buy electric-powered equipment.

“The businesses are quite modest,” Waddle says. “I’m sure we’ll see refrigerators, freezers, welding equipment, grain mills, power tools for woodworking and metalworking.

“What we’ve done so far is go through the process of identifying what the needs are to finance electrical machinery. We want the investments to result in higher energy sales, so the co-op will have the capacity to grow their revenues.”

Challenges and restoration

The co-op’s current success did not come without its challenges and setbacks.

Totota EC runs on a microgrid system that uses solar panels, battery storage and diesel generators. In fall of 2018, just a few months after the grid was inaugurated, a lightning strike destroyed the solar power inverters, and since then, the system has run solely on expensive diesel.

In August, NRECA International sent a team to help the co-op restore and improve the system, installing new and larger inverters, a new charge controller and a larger-capacity battery storage system.

“The end result is a more resilient system at a lower cost to consumers,” Waddle says. “The cooperative will pass those savings on to consumers.”

The cost for members will hopefully drop dramatically, he says. Currently, members pay 56 cents a kilowatt.

“It’s very expensive electricity, but members have valued the electricity so much that they’ve paid,” he says.

Ultimately, the co-op’s success comes down to the people of Totota, Waddle says.

“It does take dedication and some vision on the part of the community itself to know that it’s possible,” he says. “And it takes real leadership. In this community, the co-op has been fortunate to have leaders who have been fair-minded and dedicated and worked in the best interest of their membership.”

For Kollie, Totota EC is fueling her hopes for the future.

She plans to expand her business, employing and empowering more of her neighbors in the process.

“My hope is to see the community grow,” she says. “We hope that the electricity will be expanded to all the communities, so that our brothers there can also benefit and can also be happy about it, like we are enjoying it, like we are benefiting from it. That’s my wish.”

Zuraidah Hoffman contributed to this story.

NRECA International is a separate legal entity from NRECA.