Africa’s energy poverty: Kenya is unable to power the lives of all its citizens despite ‘having renewables’. Here is why

Besides hampering job creation, energy poverty contributes to limited access to education and unhealthy living condition;
Energy poverty impacts women in the rural areas of Kenya, who spend the better part of their day searching for either water or firewood. Representative photo: iStock.
Energy poverty impacts women in the rural areas of Kenya, who spend the better part of their day searching for either water or firewood. Representative photo: iStock.

Despite Kenya’s abundant energy resources, most rural areas are wallowing in acute energy poverty. The country’s energy sector is dominated by petroleum and electricity, with charcoal and firewood providing the basic energy needs for rural populations and the urban poor.

Energy poverty in this East African country impacts women in rural areas, who spend the better part of their day searching for either water or firewood.

Alice Yatich, an ordinary village woman, lamented to this writer about her regular predicaments in search of firewood. Yatich resides in Kipkelion, a remote rural outpost in Kenya’s Kericho County, where energy poverty is prevalent.

“We go through a lot in search of cooking fuel. From travelling long distances of as much as three-five kilometres and scare of attack from wild animals, among others,” she said.

She added that it takes them four-six hours to search for firewood at least twice or thrice a week. They are forced to buy firewood when denied access to protected areas like forests. The cheapest bundle of firewood goes for $8, while a pick-up load that lasts between three-four weeks goes for an average of $36, she said.

“The recent extension of the ban on logging has worsened the situation, with authorities blocking us from accessing forests. We don’t destroy trees by just picking fallen branches,” she said.

Emilly Chebet, another Kipkelion resident, said the price of kerosene for lighting and cooking has skyrocketed, forcing most households to alternate between firewood and charcoal.

“Several studies indicate charcoal production is a key driver of deforestation. But due to lack of cheaper alternatives, we still rely on charcoal for cooking. A five litre jerrycan, used for lighting and cooking in less than two weeks, now goes for $6 and we can hardly afford that,” she said.

Chebet said village women in her locale spend the better part of the day searching for either water or firewood, which makes them less productive in agriculture and other economic activities.

“Scarcity of firewood has made it expensive, resulting in a strange wave of firewood theft. Lack of affordable and clean energy services subject us to health hazards such as tuberculosis, asthma and high blood pressure,” said Chebet.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics recently revealed that the country’s yearly kerosene consumption has been declining for various reasons, including rising costs. 

Rural Kenya’s underdevelopment is largely due to the unavailability of affordable and reliable energy, according to Sylvester Makaka, an energy expert and advisor at the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).

Besides hampering job creation through industrialisation and manufacturing, energy poverty contributes to limited access to education and unhealthy living conditions, he said.

“Energy poverty is to blame for a lot, including underdevelopment. Children cannot study at night and early in the morning. Insufficient energy or lack of access at all hinders agricultural development, thus keeping the rural population trapped in a vicious circle of poverty,” he said.

Country’s energy situation

Besides the widespread energy poverty in rural areas, Kenya’s urban and peri-urban energy sector has experienced steady growth in the last two decades.

Considering most Kenyans (over 71 per cent) live in rural areas, multiple analyses of the national energy consumption indicate heavy dependence on charcoal and firewood for cooking. 

Over 80 per cent of households in rural Kenya use kerosene for lighting, while an almost similar percentage uses electricity in urban areas, according to Kenya Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA).

Kenya has aggressively increased access to electricity, especially in urban and semi-urban areas. But the inhibitive cost of electricity has restricted it to lighting purposes only.  

About 57 per cent of electricity in Kenya is hydro-sourced, about 32 per cent is thermal and the rest comprises geothermal, according to the country’s Ministry of Energy. 

“Solar and wind power are not fully exploited and contribute a paltry 2 per cent of installed electricity. However, hydropower often fluctuates to as low as 40 percent due to poor rainfall, with thermal energy sources relied on to make up for the shortfalls,” according to data from the ministry.

While citing affordable energy as the engine of civilisation, Felix Sigei, an energy expert in Nairobi, criticised the government for not making affordable energy available for all. However, Sigei quickly mentioned several challenges that make eradicating energy poverty in Kenya impossible. 

“The $252 charged for getting connection to the national grid is relatively high. Such costs pose a huge obstacle to the expansion of electricity connections, especially to small businesses and low-income households, which opt for cheaper alternatives like solar,” said Sigei.

The government must embrace alternative energy sources, especially in far-flung areas, away from the national grid, he said.

“They are already doing something, but they must ramp up efforts and heavily invest in renewable power sources. To serve the rural population and reduce energy poverty, the authorities must reduce technical and commercial power losses, which are currently estimated to be around 18-20 per cent,” said Sigei.

The expert said there is also a need to rehabilitate the existing transmission and expand the distribution network to underserved areas.

“We must strengthen the regulatory framework in the sector to encourage competition and efficiency. This will ensure we have multiple players, consequently leading to lower costs and surpluses and eradication of energy poverty,” he added.

Renewable energy potential & policies

Kenya has great energy potential to ensure clean fuel and energy to everybody if renewable energy sources are fully exploited. There has been some significant improvement in this regard in the last two decades, according to an analysis by the Ministry of Energy. 

Rollout of renewable sources has substantially boosted energy access, from a paltry 30 per cent electricity access in 2013 to over 70 per cent in 2022. Through these efforts, Kenya is slowly but surely emerging as a superpower in renewable energy across Africa.

The feat has been achieved through a comprehensive mix of incentives, friendly policies and the ability to leverage the abundance of geothermal energy sources in the country. There has been a rapid improvement in the exploration of wind, solar and geothermal energy generation in Kenya.

The East African country is home to the largest wind farm in Africa, the 310 megawatt (MW)capacity Lake Turkana Wind Plant (LTWP). LTWP supplied the country’s 30 per cent off-peak and 17 per cent peak electricity demands in 2019, according to the Ministry of Energy.

To bolster renewable energy generation and penetration rate in rural areas, the Kenyan government has introduced several friendly policies, which are slowly but surely impacting development.

Kenya, for instance, recently introduced a feed-in tariff on power generated from wind, biomass, geothermal and solar energy. More recently, the 2021 Finance Act reinstated tax exemptions on renewable energy products. The country also launched Kenya Vision 2030, running from 2008-2030, with industrialisation through renewable clean energy as one of the key pillars. 

Considering geothermal abundance in Kenya, the country is currently ranked the eighth largest global geothermal energy producer, behind the US, Indonesia, Turkey and New Zealand. 

Besides geothermal, Kenya has made significant progress in exploiting solar and wind power. Apart from the current solar capacity of over 170 MW, the country’s estimated solar potential is around 15,000 MW, according to EPRA. Kenya Vision 2030 aims to produce 2036 MW of wind power by 2030 from the current 460 MW.

How Kenya plans to meet climate goals?

Kenya plans to scale up renewable energy generation to meet the Paris Agreement Goals, including emission reduction. Kenya’s Energy Cabinet Secretary Davis Chirchir recently called for scaling up renewable energy generation to help achieve sustainable development, improve health and eradicate poverty through job creation.

“Kenya and other countries in Africa are responsible for an average of 4 percent global emissions. Still, we plan to gradually stop investing in thermal energy sources and transition fully to green renewable energy generation by 2030 to save more lives,” he said.

While submitting its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in 2020, Kenya committed to “lower greenhouse gas emissions by 32 per cent by 2030 relative to the business as usual scenario”.

“While Kenya’s policies and unconditional target are rated 1.5°C compatible, there is still significant potential for Kenya to strive for further emissions reductions in all sectors,” read Kenya’s updated NDC.

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Part of this article appeared in the cover story of the July 1-15, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth under the headline ‘Time Africa Switched’

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