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February 15, 2019

Mini grids help beat KPLC fraud

It’s not very often that we see the entire management of a key monopolistic public utility hauled before the courts.

So, the events surrounding the ongoing prosecutions of those who have until recently been at the helm of the Kenya Power and Lighting Company are certainly worth noting.

But first let us remember that all the gentlemen and ladies formerly running KPLC who now find themselves in the dock must be considered innocent until proven guilty. Indeed, it is entirely possible that one or more of them will be found to have played no part in the shenanigans and malfeasance which have been associated with that institution for at least two decades now, going back to the Moi era.

It was under the retired President Daniel Moi that the managements of KPLC first perfected their tricks. These essentially consisted of robbing just about anyone who ever had a power meter in their homes, or indeed anyone who bought locally manufactured goods. For what individual Kenyans or Kenyan businesses paid as electricity bills, included a huge markup that went directly into secret offshore bank accounts.

The solution to this all along has been in finding a way to decentralise the national power supply. And now it seems that we have light at the end of this long dark tunnel of KPLC fraud. It consists of two words: Mini Grids.

One of the pilot projects in this is to be found in the township of Talek, in Narok county. About 10 years ago, I drove through this township with some American academics who were making a tour of the greater Mara ecosystem. I only remembered Talek because we entered the Masai Mara Game Reserve through the Talek Gate. As for the township itself, it was not much more than a few rusty tin shacks linked by dusty footpaths.

But that was before the experimental power supply from the Solar-Hybrid Mini Grid was established in Talek, with the support of the German government. This is essentially a solar-based power supply that is independent of the national power grid.

It is perhaps poetically fitting that this project should have been sponsored by Germany, which is a leader in clean energy. For Germany has invested heavily in technologies that have brought down the cost of wind and solar power, to a point where these are now competitive with the major global electricity generators like nuclear power, geothermal, hydroelectricity, natural gas, etc.

The benefits of affordable electricity are indeed immense. The sparsely populated Talek that I saw a decade ago has given way to a vibrant and fast-growing township, which boasts numerous thriving businesses — none of which would have been possible without the electricity supplied by this Mini Grid.

Of particular interest here is the number of small hotels that have sprung up in Talek — none of which were there when I passed by a decade ago.

Perhaps the single greatest benefit here is in the growth of local tourism. For a globally renowned game reserve such as the Masai Mara, full of four-star and five-star tented camps and game lodges, the essential precondition for such local tourism is to have suitable accommodation outside the reserve.

In this way a family that could certainly not afford the rates charged by establishments inside the Masai Mara, would have the option of staying at these smaller hotels, and only going into the reserve for their game drives. Entry into any Kenyan game park, incidentally, is steeply subsidised for citizens and certified residents — it’s the visiting tourists who are charged heavily for the pleasure of going through those gates.

That such local tourism to the Masai Mara is already underway is demonstrated by the fact that the population of Talek, which is just about 2,000 most of the year, rises to about 5,000 during the peak tourism season. Not all of these peak-season residents are tourists, of course: Many of them are employed in tourism-related businesses.

The availability of affordable electricity has thus laid the foundation for new enterprises, in a remarkable example of the ‘multiplier effect’ that is possible when utility companies work as they should.

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