Wednesday, August 12, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
August 11, 2009

Kenya’s 2009 census is on course. God willing, we will know roughly how many we are before the year ends. I’m told the numbers are good for effective economic planning and resources allocation by the government. In this regard, I want to focus on the relevance of the census to the current power crisis facing this country.

Assuming that will number 40 million this month, a simple arithmetic should make us estimate 4 million households in both urban and rural areas. However, since we have been time and time again that the ratio of rural to urban population is in the region of 80% to 20% respectively. Again going by my primary school arithmetic, it means that 3.2million families live in rural areas.

As we grapple with these figures, there is an aggressive programme of rural electrification currently being carried out by the Ministry of Energy. By the time this ministry lights up 3.2 million homes, the government will have gobbled up billions of tax-payers funds- which is a most commendable thing.

Most of these funds will go into acquiring and erecting poles, buying and fixing electric cables and mounting huge transformers that must be powered with some form of oil from time to time- the kind that thieving wananchi love to extract from time to time at the cost of their own lives.

I am told that electrifying the rural area is no cheap undertaking and that the only hope for some of us who live 5km off the road is to pray that one day, a primary school nearby will receive this rare commodity so that the likes of us can afford two extra poles at Ks 500,000 in order to have power in our homes. The question to ask is this: How many rural folks can afford this expenditure, let alone the subsequent monthly bills that are already chocking the middle class in urban centres?

Watching a local TV station this week on matters to do with electricity, I wondered why the Ministry of Energy never thought of going solar if indeed it was keen on lighting Kenya’s rural population. Why should it spread thin a commodity that is threatened with extinction? We all know that our rivers are drying up causing our dams to dry up as well. Won’t this expansion worsen the situation when we add 3.2 million households to our grid? As it is, the 800,000 families and businesses in our urban centres are facing severe disruption due to the present diminishing water levels in our dams. Many factories are likely to close with resultant job losses.

Suppose the Ministry of Energy went the solar route; it will spend Ks 100,000 at most per household to power our villages. This will cost the tax payer KS 320 billion as opposed to three times the amount the ministry will spend laying poles and cables. Better still, this money will be shared among 210 constituencies that already have their allocations from the Central Government and all the Ministry will do will be to subsidize and supervise the installations.

The good thing about solar energy is that it will be cheaper both for the government and the rural consumer who may not afford the high tariffs that are normally adjusted from time to time by the power distributor.

If we go this route, we will free the national grid to serve the urban population with the bulk of usage directed to industries and essential services such as hospitals, hotels, the courts, police stations are security installations. We shall then afford to light our streets in urban centres and make them 24 hour business operations the way we have been experimenting with the City Market and Nakumatt supermarkets countrywide.

Yes, we know that Masinga and Turkwel dams are receding at an alarming rate. We know that Sondu Miriu is threatened by the depletion of Mau Forest. All these ominous warnings are both manmade and natural however, as we juggle with them, let us not ignore another of nature’s gift- the gift of abundant sunlight to augment our traditional source of energy.

As we dilly-dally with solar power, some countries in the European Union are already discussing with Arab North Africa on the possibility of harvesting solar power from the region for their use to heat and light their homes during winter. It is the kind of story that makes some of us feel bad that we cannot use our resources until some outsider comes to exploit it. It is the same reason we wish Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard would relocate to our region to intensify the gospel of innovative technology until we all begin to appreciate the opportunities around us.