Shariif Butaan is an enterprising man. As a diesel mechanic, rebuilt engines were his stock in trade. He patched together Russian truck engines with mismatched generators and German leftovers with old British parts. He began supplying electricity to his own house and neighbors from a reconditioned generator in Berbera. After a time, he began to charge a reasonable fee to his neighbors for their power—he charged by the bulb.
Now he is the managing director of the Berbera Electrical Enterprise (BEE) in Somaliland, which supplies almost all the electricity in this port city. He also heads the Berbera Fishing Cooperative, a group of 75 fishermen based along the Gulf of Aden coast. He has a commercial carpentry shop and a mechanical workshop. Outside Berbera, he owns a 30 percent interest in the power system of Burao, Somaliland, and he now controls the private power distribution for about 2,500 premises in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He is the chairman of the umbrella group of all the private electricity companies in Hargeisa. But he has not always been so affluent nor so influential.
Butaan comes from a humble background. Growing up in war-torn Somalia, he has little formal education and his command of English is limited. His career in commercial power generation began in 1991 after the civil war against the former dictator, Siad Barre. Butaan's interest in renewable energy was more than philosophical. Frustration with limited sources of power generation in Somaliland has always inspired him to think "outside the box."
One of the overarching goals of the USAID Somalia's Powering Economic Diversification Project, implemented by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), is to promote peace and stability by stimulating the development of an enabling environment for economic diversification in Puntland and Somaliland in northern Somalia. This is accomplished through promoting and facilitating access to conventional and alternative energy or renewable energy technologies. The conversion of Butaan from conventional energy magnate to a proponent of renewable energy is one of the project's successes.
When Butaan got involved with the program he began to engage other energy providers in Burao and Hargeisa to form a cooperative electricity system and to invest together in wind generators needed to supplement the patchwork electrical system that now serves a large portion of Hargeisa's needs. He is now spearheading a solar cooker training program through ADRA in Hargeisa and Berbera. After he became an ADRA partner in solar power, he became interested in the portable solar cookers introduced at the Hargeisa Fair. He found improvements to the standard solar cookers built by Solar Cookers, International from Kenya the first day he took one home to experiment. He asked for and contributed to an Outreach program for solar cookers in Berbera, a process that saves substantial amounts of charcoal and therefore scarce trees. Butaan is also working to raise the standards for safety and efficiency in electric wiring across Somaliland.
While Somalis have adapted to state collapse in creative ways, devising informal and formal systems that allow basic economic activity, the country remains extremely poor and underdeveloped. Civil society continues to take on an increasingly active role in shaping the rehabilitation and development. Butaan is the type of Somali entrepreneur that has emerged from the ashes of his war-torn country to become a civic leader. His intelligence and high standing in the community have helped the project to expand to new areas of Somaliland, laying a foundation for future projects. His efforts to raise interest and investment backing in the renewable energy sector have had immediate impact. His hands-on character makes him a valuable convert from conventional energy magnate to renewable energy proponent.