When Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, was destroyed by war in the late 1980s, the electricity infrastructure was reduced to rubble as well. Business owners who needed to power restaurants, cafés, and factories installed on-site diesel generators and then extended distribution lines to their neighbors. In time, these self-starters formed Somaliland’s electric utilities, which now serve the region’s major urban areas. Although this electric utility industry is a story of self-sufficiency, grit, and success, the sector suffers from unreliable electricity, some of the highest energy prices in the world, extremely lax safety standards, and high barriers to entry for women who want to work in energy.
Recognizing the difficulty of achieving economic growth without reliable electricity, USAID launched an energy activity through the Somalia Growth, Enterprise, Employment, and Livelihoods (GEEL) program in the fall of 2016. GEEL aims to support Somalia’s reintegration into the global economy by working through several sectors. The energy component of the program supports the entire energy value chain, including policy, safety, regulations, the private sector, consumers, and the industry’s trade association. To that end, the project works with the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, the Somaliland Energy Association, electric utilities and solar companies, businesses, farms, and female engineering students.
Ensuring Safety for Workers and Communities
When the energy activities of GEEL began, the most pressing need was safety training.
“There are a lot of challenges with safety in Somaliland because the system was built organically, by business owners extending lines to their neighbors. The construction is very poor, there is no earthing, no grounding, and no protective equipment,” describes Gulled Mahamoud, Advisor to the Somaliland Ministry of Energy and Minerals. “During the rainy season, distribution lines fall to the ground and many consumers, linemen, and animals are electrocuted by live wires.”
To address this problem, GEEL launched the Safety Working Group and invited the major utilities and generation companies in Somaliland to participate in developing electrical safety standards for the first time.
“GEEL educated the industry and helped them understand that their business is like a nuclear plant, not a simple shop where you buy chewing gum or biscuits,” explains Liban Mahomoud, Director of the Energy Department for the Ministry of Energy.
“They now understand that this is a very dangerous industry and of the need for safety precautions. This awareness is having an impact.”
Empowering Female Talent
The project is also building capacity and providing training in other areas. To increase women’s participation in the energy sector, GEEL launched a Women’s Energy Group to equip graduating female engineering students with both technical and soft skills.
“I was the first female electrical engineering graduate in Somaliland, so I understand the challenges these women face,” explains Shadia Osman, the GEEL staff member who spearheaded and leads the group. She is facilitating 10 internships for female graduates in the energy sector, and she is preparing both the graduates and host companies for the experience.
“Some of these companies, such as Gollis Energy, are actually welcoming their first female staff as a result of these internships,” describes Marina Yakhnis, an RTI energy consultant. “GEEL is helping them plan for situations they’ve never had to think about before, like ensuring women’s safety on construction sites.”
According to GEEL Energy Team Lead Fardowsa Hajiabdi, supporting the energy sector as a whole is already paying dividends.
“As a result of our work on standards, renewable energy demonstration projects, gender, and other important areas, the sector is growing by leaps and bounds,” she said.“One of the utilities, for example, is currently building a 4 megawatt solar plant. This is considered small in the United States, but it was unimaginable in Somaliland just a year ago.”