Kenyan rural business owners embrace solar power to overcome decades of electricity shortages

Eunice Ruto arriving from her home in Morop village/Wesley Langat. Photo by The Colonist Report Africa, used with permission.

This story was written by Wesley Langat and originally published by The Colonist Report Africa. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

It is a hot and windy afternoon in Mogotio, Kenya’s Rift Valley, near the equator. Walking down a marram-stoned road in Morop village, the wind howls, lifting dust from the bare and dry ground and creating a white smoke cloud in the sky. 

The road leads to the home of Justine Kiogor, a 40-year-old father of six who works as a casual labourer on a neighbouring farm. Because electricity poles ran alongside the road, one could assume power was available in the area.

Kiogor has just returned from the river where he had gone to water his cows. Despite the proximity of the electricity transmission lines, his house has remained unconnected to the power supply for more than two decades. We watched as Kiogor sent his child to retrieve his phone from the neighbour’s house, where it had been placed for solar charging. 

“I am unable to connect my house to electricity due to the high connection fee, and I do not have solar power as an alternative,” he told us. As a result, he takes his phone to the neighbour’s house to charge it. 

He uses his mobile phone to connect with clients and plan work-related activities.  In some cases, he uses his phone to make transactions, including sending money to his wife back home through MPESA, a mobile-based money transfer app.

However, if Kiogor’s neighbour is unavailable, he has to travel to the shopping centre, which is only about 2 kilometres (1 mile)  from their house, to charge their phones.

Electricity transmission lines close to Eunice Ruto's house at Moop Village/Wesley Langat. Photo by The Colonist Report Africa, used with permission.

Kiogor’s story is similar to that of the 840 million people who lack access to electricity globally simply because they do not have the financial means to install a solar home system in addition to electricity. About 570 million of these astonishing numbers, according to the United Nations, are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

More demand for power supply

The same neighbourhood as Kiogor is home to Eunice Ruto, a mother of five who farms beans, sorghum, and maize. In 2019, she obtained a solar system from Sunking company through credit for her home, for which she pays a daily fee of USD 15 cents (KSH 20). She took this difficult decision because she was having trouble charging her phone and was losing out on business opportunities for her farming company.

“Before I bought this solar, my phone used to go off, and I couldn’t be reached by my clients who wanted to buy farm produce,” she told this writer.

Ruto’s phone’s constant low battery became a problem, resulting in additional losses from missed opportunities. With solar, she can maintain a constant connection with her customers and receive orders for her merchandise on time.

While a small percentage of households are connected to the power grid, most are unable to pay the costs of maintaining an electricity connection. As a result, buying portable solar lamps is a common choice among rural inhabitants.

Ruto no longer worries about connecting her home to the power grid because her solar home system not only lights her home but also powers electronics like phones and televisions.

“Politicians have made numerous promises to connect our homes with electricity at an affordable cost, yet these commitments have not been fulfilled. For me, I’m not bothered anymore,” said Ruto.

For rural communities in Kenya’s off-grid areas, solar power has shown to be a very reliable and promising source of energy. For example, solar power allows Ruto to use most of her evening hours to do household chores and help her kids with schoolwork. 

Kenya’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 is to accelerate the country’s transformation into a rapidly industrialising middle-income nation by 2030. The 2023 Tracking SDG7 Report projected that approximately 660 million people, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa, would still lack access to energy by 2030.

Josephine Tonon, a small-scale businesswoman also living in Morop village, has already connected her house and shop to electricity. However, the high cost of electricity — a minimum of USD 114 (KSH 15,000) — makes her opt for a solar lamp. She also relies on a portable lamp for lighting during power outages. 

Tonon told us that since adopting solar energy, which costs USD 15 penny (KSH 20) per day, she has saved up to USD 1.52 (KSH 200) per week.

Josephine Tonon demonstrates how a portable solar lamp works at her shop in Morop Village. Photo by The Colonist Report Africa, used with permission.

Government initiative

The Last Mile Connectivity Programme, a government-led initiative launched in 2015, seeks to provide access to affordable electricity in rural and peri-urban areas. According to Kenya Power, the three initial phases have resulted in more than 75 percent of the population having access to electricity, up from 29 percent in 2012. 

Kenya is one of the African countries that has already adopted renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. 

Stephen Nzioka, deputy director of renewable energy at Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum confirmed Kenya’s potential to generate renewable energy. Nzioka revealed that his ministry has mapped out 20 new sites earmarked for establishing renewable energy stations. 

“The potential is very great; 93 percent of what we consume as power in our country is from renewable energy sources,” he said. 

Nzioka stated that greenhouse gas emissions are declining as the government gradually decommissions fossil fuel generators and replaces diesel-powered stations with renewable energy sources. 

Nzioka claims that 78 percent of Kenya’s land area is not near a major power grid. “If we have those mini-grids serving those areas that are underserved, then we will be able to come up with industries/industrialization in marginalised areas. So we are using renewable energy, especially solar, to reach universal access to electricity by 2030. That is our plan as a ministry.”

“Once we develop a mini-grid then we have businesses coming around, welding, shops, and others around that place,” he told The Colonist Report Africa.

According to Nzioka, the Kenyan government has prioritised the promotion and use of renewable energy, primarily to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. 

The second phase of the Last Mile Connectivity Project, which was carried out in Kenya from 2016 to 2022, successfully gave 1.6 million people in rural areas access to electricity, according to the Project Completion Report released by the African Development Bank on August 11, 2023. 

The African Development Bank’s Impact Evaluation also shows an 83 percent increase in access to electricity. The World Bank, the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the Kenyan government all provided financial support for the Last Mile Connectivity project.

Is the use of solar increasing in Kenya?

Andrew Amadi, CEO of the Kenya Renewable Energy Association (KEREA), credited the rise in solar energy adoption in Africa to its affordability. “Today, the biggest advantage that is driving renewable energy is the cost. Once you pay the upfront cost, you can continue using it as you pay the rest over a period of time.”

Amadi emphasises the utmost significance of developing renewable energy technologies to benefit the most vulnerable, thereby combating poverty through the productive use of energy in areas without electricity.

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