Having two massive, top-heavy State corporations controlling access to electricity in the country just invites corruption and inefficiency.
By PETER WANYONYI
Kenya, we have been told frequently, is an energy-starved country. We do not produce anywhere near the amount of energy we need to keep the lights on. A trip through any of Kenya’s upcountry towns and villages can be instructive in assessing our energy scarcity: in most places, the setting of the sun marks the end of the day. A few keronese lamps are lit to illuminate the evening meal, but these are soon extinguished and Kenya resigns itself to the deep, dark night. This is not unique to us in Africa, though, as a look at night-time photos of Africa will show – it’s not for nothing that the moniker “the dark continent” has stuck. Such photos show a few glimmers of light in South Africa and Egypt, and a handful of blobs of light where the respective capital cities of the continent’s countries are, but the rest is a deep, inky darkness. Lighting up Africa has continued to elude the continent.
Kenya, like other African countries, lagged far behind the West – and Asia – in setting up modern energy generating infrastructure and facilities. Through a mix of historical corruption and similar governance issues, Kenya ended up with entrenched, government-owned monopolies in the energy-generation and distribution sectors, and these were frequently driven not by a profit motive, but by political objectives. The result was a system that we are still saddled with, and which is not only grossly inefficient and ruinously expensive, but one that is inherently unsustainable and incapable of meeting the expanding energy needs of our huge and growing population, currently estimated at over 45 million people.
Existing on monopolies
Up to 77 per cent of the total energy consumed in Kenya is from biomass, mainly wood. This has had a serious effect on the environment. It is also an indictment of Kenyan energy policy that, in a country with 13 hours of sunshine almost every day of the year, we still continue to cut down trees for energy use at home and to supply urban areas with charcoal for cooking.
This situation is owed largely to the monolithic focus of Kenya’s State-owned energy monopolies on “big” energy projects.
While KenGen and its related State-owned corporations have tried to go into a diversified energy mix in Kenya, they have still failed to reach the majority of Kenyans. Just five per cent of rural Kenya has access to electricity, for example, and despite all sorts of fudged numbers we now know that barely 25 per cent of Kenyans across the country have access to electricity. Even these 25 per cent have to contend with daily blackouts, sometimes lasting over a day or two, as the Kenya Power distribution monopoly struggles to keep its creaking electricity network up and running.
This is obviously unsustainable and is holding Kenya back. However, as was the case with the telecommunications sector, the focus on KenGen and Kenya Power is in fact the wrong approach. Having two massive, top-heavy State corporations controlling access to electricity in the country just invites corruption and inefficiency.
Instead, Kenyan policymakers should look to disruptive approaches that break the energy grid into small, easily swallowed chunks. They could begin by breaking up the transmission network and selling it off, in a manner not unlike the sale of telecommunications transmission frequencies.
There’s no good reason why the electricity transmission network in Nairobi should be owned by the same company as that in, say, Webuye. Breaking up the network and privatising it invites much-needed investment into transmission facilities, a factor that holds Kenya Power back from fixing its network: the top-heavy nature of the company means that corruption and inefficiency eat up most funds meant for network expansion and repairs. Smaller, private companies would solve this first hurdle.
Power generation has the same problem. At the moment, our energy mix is whatever KenGen decides it will be. This is a massive responsibility for one company, and one which the company has spectacularly failed to fulfil with any measure of success. In fact, it is now clear that it would be far better for the generation to also be sliced and diced in the same manner as the distribution. A basic hydroelectric dam on a small permanent river might make no sense when KenGen considers it from a national perspective, but it might be exactly what the small town of Rongo needs to meet all of its energy needs.
Decentralised energy mix
A decentralised approach of this sort also necessarily creates a varied and therefore more stable national energy mix: while hydroelectric generation would suite water-rich Western Kenya, for example, small coal-fired plants would suit those towns in Eastern Kenya sitting on small to medium-sized coal deposits that are too little to power a national-scale energy plant, but which would suffice to supply a town the size of Machakos with power for the next two or three decades.
The same decentralised approach can be used to equip houses in most of Kenya with solar panels, as well as to tap some of the smaller geothermal spots around the country. Big, monolithic energy approaches have failed us for over 100 years: to succeed, we must copy the model we used to succeed in telecommunications: go small, target the small consumer, look for affordable mixes. There’s no point attempting to boil the ocean. Small is good and sustainable – and efficient.
Peter Wanyonyi works for the New Zealand government as a senior solutions architect.