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Kenya races toward goal of electrifying every household

May 20, 2017 at 5:59 PM EDT
Kenya has made rapid gains in connecting households across the country to the electrical grid, as part of a goal to achieve universal access to power by 2020. Over the past three years the East African country has connected 12.4 million people, becoming a model on a continent where half of the population lives without electricity. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Seline Akinyi Mumbe is 49-years old and lived without electricity for her first 48 years, until she finally got power 10 months ago.

So three buildings here, all connected with electricity?

SELINE AKINYI MUMBE: Yea.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Mumbe lives in Unami, a village 170 miles northwest of Nairobi.

SELINE AKINYI MUMBE: I felt like I was in a different world, because my house was well lit. I knew I was no longer going to spend money on oil, I was also not going to spend a lot of time walking to the market to charge my cell phone.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Her home was recently hooked up as part of the Last Mile Connectivity Project – a government program to connect 70 percent of Kenyans to the grid by this year.

It’s part of a larger goal to achieve universal access to electricity by 2020. It’s an ambitious undertaking — Kenya would become one of the first sub-Saharan African nations to reach this milestone.

And Kenya has made progress rapidly, going from 27 percent of the population connected in 2013, to 56 percent in 2016, adding more than 1.2 million households to the grid last year alone.

The quest began a decade ago by building transformers that distribute electricity. First priority was connecting hospitals, market centers, and schools to the grid.

Now, the Last Mile project is focusing on connecting rural households. Mumbe uses the new electricity to light up her house, iron her family’s clothes and warm water with a heater that plugs into the wall.

SELINE AKINYI MUMBE: Initially, I used to iron with a charcoal iron box, and boil water with firewood. Having electricity makes work easier. Even if I want to wash my clothes at night all I have to do is switch on the light.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: She’s also started a small business. Neighbors without electricity pay 10 cents to charge their cell phones.

Susanna Berkouwer is a Research Economist at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s part of a team that surveyed 4,000 households in Kenya to measure the impact of electricity on people’s lives — everything from health to education to employment.

SUSANNA BERKOUWER: We ask a general question about life satisfaction. Just how satisfied are you with your life? And actually we saw an improvement there. It frees up people’s time, it allows them to engage in other activities in the home, or just to take that time to relax and feel happier and be less stressed.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Kenyan Energy Minister Charles Keter says the success of the Last Mile Project can be applied throughout Africa, where more than 600 million people — half of the continent’s population — still live without electricity.

CHARLES KETER: I think the African continent can learn a lot from the Last Mile connectivity. That it’s possible for governments to spearhead the programs so that the narrative of Africa being a “dark continent” should not be there.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Two-thirds of the cost of Kenya’s electrification campaign is being funded by loans from the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

But even with such widespread support, the cost of connecting to the grid and wiring a house falls on individual Kenyans.

Like Roy Atieno. He and his wife, Belinda, are subsistence farmers in Unami. There’s a new electricity pole right outside their house, but they can’t afford the cost of connecting to it.

Is it frustrating to be too close to the source of electricity but not have access?

ROY ATIENO: I always wish, whenever I wake out from my house, I check at the pole, and then I wish it is already in my house. It is frustrating.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: In a 2015 UC Berkeley study, half of rural Kenyan households surveyed lived within 200 meters of a power line, yet didn’t have electricity.

SUSANNA BERKOUWER: There’s this whole other category of “under grid,” which are people that are off grid, so they’re not directly connected to electricity, but they’re not living 100 miles away from the electricity grid. They’re actually living, in many cases, 10 feet away from their nearest pole.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The cost of connecting to the grid has dropped from about $350 before the Last Mile program started, to $150 dollars today, thanks to subsidies from the Kenyan government. And a power company loan program gives residents three years to pay off the installation bill.

Still, $150 dollars is about four times what Kenyans in this region earn in a month.

For those who do manage to get connected, it’s only worth the investment if the power actually works. Many Kenyans complain of frequent outages, lasting from minutes to days.

When we met hair salon owner Susan Adhiambo Kopot right outside Unami, the salon had lost power for more than an hour. Kopot and her employees were limited to braiding customer’s hair, because they couldn’t use a hair straightener or blow dryer.

SUSAN ADHIAMBO KOPOT: I lose a lot of money. It feels bad, because you decide to spend your money to get an electricity connection, so you can use it to run your business, but you end up experiencing blackouts. It’s very disappointing.

STANLEY MUTWIRI: With this type of rapid expansion, we have had a lot of planned interruptions.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Stanley Mutwiri is the Head of Infrastructure for the government-controlled Kenya Power and Lighting Company — known as KPLC.

Mutwiri concedes that some unplanned outages occur due to acts of nature — like wind or rain — but he says most are planned and necessary.

STANLEY MUTWIRI: Every time you are connecting some new customers on the line, you must interrupt others.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: KPLC is building new substations to increase the capacity of the electrical grid. When this station goes online next month, the transformer will be able to supply three times as many households as before.

Kenya Energy Minister Charles Keter says the government is also planning ahead and producing excess power right now, to ensure it can accommodate the rise in future demand.

CHARLES KETER: We cannot wait until when we have maybe big industries or the demand is high. It’s like building a road. You cannot say, ‘Why are you building a road when there are no vehicles?’ You build the road to create that environment which people can now purchase vehicles.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Renewable energy will be crucial to Kenya meeting the surge in demand for electricity. Right now the country gets over 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as geothermal, hydro, and more recently, wind.

The Turkana Wind Farm, in Northern Kenya, is designed to supply one-fifth of the nation’s energy. When it is completed later this year, it will be the largest wind farm in africa.

In Kenya, renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels.

STANLEY MUTWIRI: Fossil fuels have got one unknown, that is what is going to be the cost of fuel tomorrow? We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how long this fossil fuel is going to be there. But the renewable energy like, for example, the sun we always say, I’m sure tomorrow the sun will be up.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Nighttime is when the personal impact of electricity is most visible, as well as its uneven distribution. At Roy Atieno’s house, with no electricity, the family eats dinner by the light of only two kerosene lamps.

But down the road, Seline Mumbe’s electrified house has become a beacon for school children. They come from all over the village to study and do homework.

Beryl Jane Otieno is 17.

BERYL JANE OTIENO: By around 9:00 p.m. the lights used to get dim, and I could not even see what I was reading clearly. I used to study for two to three hours, but nowadays I always study for five hours.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But surprisingly, Berkouwer says, the research shows that people’s lives haven’t significantly changed with the flip of a switch.

After one year:
– Students did not perform better in english or math tests;
– Using electricity, which likely reduces the burning of kerosene or wood, didn’t improve health; and
– While women worked more, household incomes didn’t improve.

SUSANNA BERKOUWER: We’d like to go back in a few years and see if the long term effects are different than the short term effects. But maybe not. Maybe these things just aren’t going to improve by as much as people were expecting.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: One reason may be that newly connected households don’t have that many ways to use the electricity yet.

SUSANNA BERKOUWER: If you provide somebody with an electricity connection, but they’re not able to afford the appliances that would really allow them to use that electricity connection, how much could it really even benefit them? If we can answer those types of questions and we can compare that with similar research that looks at the effects of improving your education or the effects of improving your health care, then a household, or indeed a government can make a decision about which of those is better to invest in.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But Energy Minister Charles Keter says providing electricity is a human right and should be a priority, even for poor, rural households.

Some of them have homes with roofs made out of thatch. Some of them don’t have reliable access to water or even food. Is electricity really the priority for these people?

CHARLES KETER: Power is very essential in any developing country. And that’s why as a country, whether you live in a grass-thatch home or any other related structures, we will provide you with power.

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