Kenya: Solar energy brings opportunities to rural Kenya (AlertNet)

| June 6, 2011

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Producing electricity from the local waterfall was once just a dream for two farming communities on the fertile lower slopes of Mount Kenya. But thanks to a local initiative backed by U.N. cash and know-how, it is now a reality.

Kibae and Kiangombe are located 150 kilometres north of the capital Nairobi on opposite banks of the Mukengeria River. Farmers in the area grow fruit and vegetables on a small scale. Like many rural communities in Kenya, neither village has access to the national power grid.

Eager to harness power from the waterfall, villagers started the project by building a weir and powerhouse. But without a turbine, the work was in vain. The cost of a turbine put it beyond the villagers’ reach. On hearing the story from a local representative, the Kenyan government asked the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, or UNIDO, to help.

Alexander Varghese is UNIDO’s Kenya representative, and an expert in renewable energy. He says, “We were amazed with their innovation and the effort they put in place to set up the energy [supply].” UNIDO stepped in with two turbines, solar panels and technical expertise. The villages now run the energy project as a co-operative, in collaboration with UNIDO.

The community power centre was inaugurated in 2008. It is Kenya’s first hybrid zero-emission power centre, and uses a mix of hydropower and solar energy. The centre has brought cheap and climate-friendly power to the villages. Lives and incomes have improved.

An energy kiosk in Kibae stores and sells electricity produced by the project. It promotes the use of LED lamps to replace the smoky kerosene lamps that caused health problems, particularly among women and children.

Salome Njoka is a farmer and mother of six children. She says the kiosk and her energy-saving lamp have improved her life: “I use one lamp and I take it to the energy kiosk for charging once a week. I have saved a lot of money and the lamps are convenient to use.”

Mrs. Njoka used to buy 10 litres of kerosene each month, at a cost of about 700 Kenyan shillings or eight US dollars. Today she pays just 20 Kenyan shillings (around 25 cents) per charging session, or 300 shillings (three and a half dollars) per month.

Njoka’s children regularly suffered eye problems and respiratory illnesses with the kerosene lamps, resulting in frequent trips to the health centre 30 kilometres away. She says, “Since I started using the new lamps, the problems have disappeared and my hospital visits have reduced.”

Opportunities are multiplying now that the village has a power supply. Jeremiah Wangombe is a 60-year-old farmer in Kibae. He explains, “The energy project has offered employments to many youths in these two villages. They work in the maize mill, poultry hatchery, fruit extracting plant, and at the community centre where locals get market information.”

Kenya’s government, worried by worsening droughts and climate change, is now supporting a variety of renewable energy projects. UNIDO says that projects in rural areas, where only 10 percent of the population have access to electricity, could be particularly important. Mr. Varghese says that UNIDO hopes to fund further projects like the one in Kibae.

For more information on UNIDO’s Community Power Centres initiative in Kenya, visit: