How electrification transformed the face of rural Kenya

Standard Four Pupils take part in a digital literacy lesson at St.Johns Dengu Primary School in Rangwe, Homa Bay County. The learning devices are recharged within the school courtesy of the rural electrification drive. / Photo Dickson Ogutu/The Executive Talk Magazine.

By Dickson Ogutu

An ambitious rural electrification plan backed by state impetus expanded the reach of the electricity grid in Kenya to far-flung rural areas with tremendous impact, as our reporter  Dickson Ogutu found out on his journeys touring rural electrification projects around Kenya.

Medical Clinician Mr. Joel Otieno’s career life has come a long way, with quite some gruesome memories. These memories, he says, sometimes return to haunt him, and he struggles to forget them every single day.

Anguish and sweat breaks on his face the moment he begins telling us the tale of his career.

 As clinical officer in far-flung Nyawawa Community Dispensary in Homa Bay County, Joel has witnessed untold suffering and even death of pregnant village women in labuor, not once, but more times than he can possibly recount.

“Three years ago before electricity was extended to this dispensary by the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC), emergency night time medical calls especially mothers in labour were my worst nightmare. So much time would be spent seeking alternative lighting to aid the delivery operations it was almost always late to save mother and baby,” he tells us.

The recently electrified Nyawawa village dispensary that serves the local population around St. John’s Dengu Primary School in rural Homa Bay County./ Photo The Executive Talk Magazine Dickson Ogutu.

He happens to be the only qualified health personnel serving this remote village whose nearest mission hospital is four kilometers away.

Patients await their turn to see Clinician Mr. Joel Otieno at recently REREC electrified Nyawawa Community dispensary in Rural Homa Bay County./Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/Dickson Ogutu.

Mr. Otieno says the maternity patients he lost to power outages were “casualties of darkness”, a heavy price the community has paid in the past for the absence of electric power.

The Executive Talk Magazine is on a trip in the West Kenya region to witness first-hand the stories of light and darkness, literally. We drive to Homa Bay County from Kisumu City, a distance of 120 kilometers. Our first destination is Nyawawa Community Dispensary and two public primary schools in the vicinity.

The dispensary is situated deep in the fringes of rural Homa Bay County. The public facilities we visit are located in an area where transport access remains challenging due to bad roads often made even worse by the vagaries of change of weather in the rainy season.

“In 2002, a study was conducted by the Government of Kenya on the impact of a rural electrification program that had been commenced in 1973.The study revealed that after nearly 30 years of implementation, the connectivity of rural areas to electricity countrywide was only at a paltry 3.8%.

The newly elected government in 2003 hence adopted a change of approach, in a paper launched by then Ministry of Planning titled ‘The Economic Recovery Strategy Paper for Employment and Wealth Creation.’

That document detailed the creation of a special purpose company mandated to speed up rural electrification, according to a government source who was privy to the origins of REREC.

 The Ministry of Energy’s Sessional Paper Number 4 of 2004 strictly divorced rural electrification from the distribution and commercial activities of Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC), making way for the enactment of the Energy Bill of December 2006.

It is with this Act that the Rural Electrification Authority was created, establishing the first Board of Directors in July 2007.The state parastatal would embark on activities that have immensely changed the energy distribution landscape in Kenya, speeding up rural connections and access to power in an unprecedented manner.

At the dispensary in Homa Bay, we find Florence Kacha clutching onto her four month-old son as she patiently awaits her turn in the line. She’s here for her baby’s clinical appointment.

 “The coming of power has saved us a great deal of pain and time as mothers with little kids in this area. The solar lighting used here before even went off often-times in the night in the gravest of emergencies. Lots of us here have since filled application forms seeking to install electricity in our houses and premises, which we’ve submitted to REREC for processing in liaison with KPLC,” she tells us.

Mama Florence Kacha (left) speaks on the value electrification has added to the local village dispensary in Nyawawa. / Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/Dickson Ogutu.

 We also visit the school right across the road from the dispensary. St. Johns’s Dengu Primary School is emerging from an eternal envelope of darkness that has engulfed the area all days of its life.

 “For the first time the pupils really just want to arrive early and leave school late by their own motivation,” IT teacher Richard Abila tells us. We found him kicking off an afternoon class with newly supplied digital literacy program computers, and the smile on the face of his pupils told it all.

Learners using digital literacy tabs at St. John’s Dengu Primary School in rural Homa Bay County, Kenya. / Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/ Dickson Ogutu.

A total of 23,337 public schools had been identified for electrification by June 2016, out which 22,637 were fully electrified by July 2017, with 700 completed and awaiting commissioning. The objective of setting up REREC was purely to enhance rural electrification.

 At the start in 2008-2009, realizing that this mandate was so huge, the government of Kenya settled on a strategy prioritizing public facilities. This in part targeted health centers, primary and secondary schools, trading centers and all other public utility facilities.

These public facilities turned out to be so many beyond available financial capacity so government set out to complete works on primary schools, health and trading centers first for a start.

We made our way to yet another public school in the area, Anding’o Primary School, where electricity installation and wiring had recently been completed by the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation. The initial plan was to connect only the primary school.

 However, neighboring Anding’o Secondary School took advantage of the connection by REREC and applied for electrification springing to life its long non-functional science laboratory.

“In fact if we need anything photocopied here now we only pass it across the fence for the help of our colleagues at the secondary school because they have the machines unlike before when we had to send it 3 kilometers away,” deputy head teacher Mr. Rodgers Okumu tells us.

The networks REREC had planned to lay out across Kenya in its initial strategy spanning 2009-2013 were aimed at building a backbone for future extension of electricity to other facilities and households in rural areas. Nearby Andingo’o Secondary School is one such facility which perfectly fell into place with this plan.  

“There is significant successes that REREC has achieved in the last 10 years. The first I can confidently tell you is that about 70% of public facilities in Kenya today are electrified as compared to only about 30% in 2006,” a government source told this publication.

90,0000 - Total number of public utility facilities electrified in rural areas by July 2017.

But the electrification project in Kenya has been fraught with challenges. REREC and the government experienced painful delays in negotiations with communities and land owners to grant way leaves for the extension of the network.

In some instances, lack of adequate data on registered public primary schools across Kenya led scheming communities backed by overzealous politicians targeting political capital from electricity connections to deliberately build new undocumented and unplanned-for schools.

The electrification program also experienced material shortages given construction of power lines require different items from multiple suppliers. Lack of one item meant a pause on one or multiple projects.

In some instances, hydro or diesel generated power and solar photovoltaic connection proposals by REREC as an alternative in areas with special challenges were flatly rejected by residents and area politicians.

The rural electrification campaign also faced infrastructure vandalism problems in some areas of Kenya.

According to a source, the number of public facilities in Kenya that had been connected to electricity stood at about 90,000 as of March 2017. This included even the smallest of places like walk ways, churches, mosques and administrative centers.

But perhaps the most significant key performance indicator of the rural electrification campaign in Kenya was realized in traditionally off-grid areas. By 2006, only 15 trading centers in counties across Kenya and off the national electricity grid had electricity connection .

In sharp contrast 89 trading centres had been connected to electricity as of mid-2017.

The Government of Kenya’s Ministry of Energy through REREC financed the establishment of 19 isolated diesel generators in off-grid areas, 12 of which were complete by July 2017 while 7 were at various stages of implementation.

Hybrid photovoltaic electricity solar is in use in four such stations: Takaba, Aldas, Lamu and Laisamis. On a different day of our trip in West Kenya, we toured electrification projects in the South Rift Region.

 Kedowa is a small town on a hilly terrain lying between Molo and Kericho towns. We were received by Mr. Johanna Chepkwony, chairman of the local parents-teachers association for two primary schools in the area.

Logo at the entrance of Kedowa Primary School in Kericho County. The school was recently connected to the national electricity grid/ Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/Dickson Ogutu.

We came to Kedowa specifically to assess the impact of rural electrification on rural schools including three special schools for the deaf located located within the same vicinity: Kedowa Special Primary School for the Deaf, Kedowa Special Secondary School for the Deaf and Kedowa Technical Training Institute for the Deaf.

“Electrification has changed every aspect of life in this small rural town, from commercial activities at the local trading center to learning at the special schools,” says Mr. Chepkwony.

We also meet learners at the special boarding primary school who are on their weekend afternoon routines led by school bursar Mr. Charles Lang’at.

Kedowa Primary School PTA Chairman Mr. Johanna Chepkwonyi explains how connection to the national electricity grid has breathed new lease of life into rural schools and the small town in Kedowa in Kericho County./ Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/ Dickson Ogutu.

“Every activity of learners here depends on electricity in the night since they can’t hear and only take visual instructions. The community of this school is very grateful to REREC and the Government of Kenya through the Ministry of Energy for considering us for electricity connection. It has literally granted a brighter future for these hundreds of children with hearing challenges who would otherwise be disenfranchised from proper education,” says Mr. Lang’at.

AIC Kedowa Special School for the Deaf School Bursar Mr. Charles Lang’at explains how rural electrification has benefited special needs children at the school in Kericho County./ Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/ Dickson Ogutu.

 “Besides enabling technical training in trades such as welding, connection to electricity in this rural part of Kenya has allowed us to pump water to the school from the river down the hill, rescuing our deaf children from road-crossing accidents on the Molo-Kericho highway as was the case before electricity connection as they went up and down the hill to fetch water for essential use,” he adds.

Jovial special needs school children and a member of staff at AIC Kedowa Special School for the Deaf in Londiani, Kericho County whose school recently benefited from rural electrification. /Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/ Dickson Ogutu

The electrification of primary schools for the digital learning program intensified in 2013 after the Jubilee administration came to power, expanding electrification far and wide to include fomerly off grid parts of the country where power was once only available in towns.

The entrance to Kedowa Special Secondary School for the Deaf in Londiani, Kericho County recently elecrtrified by RIREC alongside the neighbouring primary schools for children with special needs. /Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/Dickson Ogutu.

Similar rural electrification interventions have taken place in other places around Kenya like  Lodwar, Moyale, Marsabit, Wajir, El Wak , Habaswein, Garissa and Mandera , with nearly all of them getting electricity connection for the first time since independence.

We also visited Kusa Beach in Kisumu County where we witnessed six primary school head teachers sign bills of good health approving that their schools have been fully electrified and repainted by government rural electrification efforts. The head teachers we met shared their joy and delight as well as that of their students and parents in the schools since the coming of power. 

What we find at Kusa Beach however simply captivates our human imaginations for the enterprise. Though slowly succumbing to the hyacinth menace ravaging parts of Lake Victoria, the community fish pond project at Kusa Beach was designed to survive entirely on electricity sustained water pumping and fish preservation.

The transformer installed by REREC stands tall right by the fish ponds at the point where land meets the lake.   

Electric Power touches down at Kusa Beach community fish pond project premises in rural Kisumu County Kenya. / Photo The Executive Talk Magazine/ Dickson Ogutu

Far away back in the capital Nairobi , REREC has installed 21 high mast flood lights in Nairobi’s Kibera slums, 83 in Mathare, Korogocho, Ngomongo, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Kiandutu slums in Thika since 2014.

The 2015 Energy Bill has now transformed what was Rural Electrification Authority (REA) to Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC), expanding the mandate of the government agency domiciled in the Ministry of Energy giving it additional capacity to effectively take charge of the country’s efforts to harness more renewable energy.

This expansion of mandate will go a long way to further speed up rural electrification in Kenya and allows RIREC to spearhead greater implementation of renewable energy strategies on behalf of the government of Kenya going into the future.

 Outstanding challenges in rural electrification in Kenya however still abound, especially for off-grid areas. Transport to terrains in far-away areas especially during the rainy season remains a nightmare in many parts of the country.

This has compelled the government of Kenya to consider moving away from diesel stations to hybrid solar systems in off-grid regions. The main electricity supply for such areas will be solar and diesel generation systems to provide back-up.

A 60kw hybrid solar and 40kw diesel pilot project of this kind has already been done in Diamadow , Wajir South in Wajir County. It already works very well and is even used in pumping water for the locals. The government is mooting plans to do 25 such station in 25 other counties, according to a source who spoke to this publication.

The government of Kenya has previously indicated it has plans to electrify remaining public utility facilities through the establishment of renewable energy mini-grids and extension of lines from existing diesel stations.

As a matter of fact, RIREC’s 2016/17-2020/21 strategic plan seen by this publication emphasizes the intent to grow and develop renewable energy, increase electricity connections, establish greater strategic partnerships, strengthen institutional capacity building, and enhance corporate financial sustainability.

The Government of Kenya works closely on rural electrification projects with the World Bank, France, Germany, China, Finland, and the Arab Development Bank for Africa (BADEA), Saudi Fund, Abu Dhabi Fund and the OPEC Fund for International Development.

Experts say continued financial collaborations in the energy sector in Kenya is necessary as it is meant to mitigate historical rural electrification challenges compounded further by the perennial problem of inadequate budgetary funds hence the need to diversify revenue sources through the Exchequer, development partners, bargains for concessions regarding way leave land access, county government partnerships and enhanced customer electricity connections.

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