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Sierra Leone's Electricity Shortage Charges Up Young Entrepreneurs


In Sierra Leone's presidential election, electricity has become an important campaign issue. In the crowded capital Freetown residents can go weeks without power, but some of the city's youth, faced also with unemployment that exceeds 70 percent, have turned adversity into opportunity. For VOA, Naomi Schwarz reports the city is full of little shops that offer to cut your hair, charge your phone, and let you play video games, all powered by inexpensive generators.

Four or five boys crowd on wooden benches and plastic chairs in a tiny, ramshackle shop on a busy construction-filled road in downtown Freetown. More push up to the window to watch what is going on inside.

The boys are playing video game soccer on a small television.

Less than 20 cents gets you four minutes of playtime.

Shops like these dot every neighborhood. They offer a range of services, from haircuts with electric shavers to pay phone calls.

And for about 35 cents at almost any of the shops, you can charge your cell phone.

Although video games, haircuts, and cell phone charging do not seem related, there is one thing they have in common: they all require electricity. And that is something in short supply in Freetown.

Alvin Williams, who owns and operates the video-game, telephone, and cell phone-charging shop, says it has been more than a week since he has had electricity at home.

"From last Saturday to Sunday and at night, it is gone, so up until now," he said.

But the 22-year-old electrical engineering student turned entrepreneur has been able to turn his city's lack of power into an opportunity for himself. He will use the profits from his shop to pay for school.

"I just decided to do that because I am a student, so I have no facilities to pay my fees. So I can get the money to pay my fees," he said. "That is why."

The electricity shops operate with small generators.

Williams' Tiger-brand generator sits several feet away, the noise buffered by the concrete wall of an unfinished building. It cost him about $100.

Williams has been operating his shop for about two months. He said opening it was difficult and expensive, and he has not yet fully repaid the money he borrowed. But he said he could not find employment any other way.

"I have tried, but some of my friends have jobs, but me, I do not know. But I know that is the law. It is the will of God. Everything has time," he added.

Unemployment estimates in Sierra Leone top 70 percent and are even higher among youth. This, combined with the poor electricity and severe water shortages, have led many young Sierra Leoneans to say they want the upcoming run-off presidential election to result in a change in government.

Albert Thompson, who operates a generator-powered barber and cell-phone charging shop around the corner says this is why he will not vote for Solomon Berewa, the current vice president and candidate for the Sierra Leone People's Party.

"We are looking for a candidate [to bring] the immediate development we need right now," said Thompson.

In the first round, the candidate from the main opposition party, Ernest Koroma, garnered the highest number of votes, about 44 percent.

On September 8, Koroma will face Berewa in the second round.

Political arguing among the players and bystanders in Williams' shop shows that not everyone agrees the ruling party is to blame for the problems in Sierra Leone.

A fervent Berewa supporter, Suma Solo, says the electricity problems are not the fault of the president or his party.

"The president is not the one that did that," said Solo. "We, the Sierra Leoneans, have the problem."

In the meantime, entrepreneurs like Williams will continue to fill the gap. Williams says the name of his shop, Bobo Penn Center, reflects the hardships of living in Freetown that require such shops to exist.

"It is exactly how 'bobo penn' life goes. The hard life. So a really hard life. So that is why we call this place, that is the Bobo Penn Center. That is why," added Williams.

He says bobo penn is a slang phrase that means life his hard, and he says, in Freetown, 'we are all bobo penn.'

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