Major town centres in Homa Bay county used to be a no-go zone by 8 in the evening. Mama mbogas and boda boda operators were forced to close their businesses early due to insecurity.
Residents, business people and visitors were mugged in the darkness. Boda boda operators were killed and their motorcycles stolen. Small enterprises operating at night had to make do with small tin lamps.
Then came “Okonyo Welo” (Save a Visitor), a solar streetlighting project initiated by the Homa Bay government in 2014 to light up major streets and market centres.
Over 800 high solar floodlight masts were earmarked for installation in 285 major market centres, in a Sh240million project that Governor Cyprian Awiti said aimed for a 24-hour economy.
The project was done in partnership with Horizon Media Investments, with each party contributing 50 per cent of the project cost and sharing advertising revenue in the same ratio.
Ever since its inception, the crime rate has reduced, while business hours, especially for mama mbogas, were extended in rural and urban market centres.
So far, the county has installed 745 solar lights. But of late, the project has become a cash cow for criminals, who cash in at the expense of residents’ security and economic growth.
The worst-hit areas in Homa Bay Town include the Pier, Soko Mjinga and Homa Bay main markets, Makongeni, Sofia, Mbuni and Shauri Yako estates.
Various solar masts along Homa Bay-Kisumu, Homa Bay-Rongo roads and the CBD have also either been cut or knocked down by speeding vehicles. Solar panels, battery backups and other accessories have been stolen.
Sometimes thieves take advantage of road accidents around the solar masts to loot the panels and batteries. They also target charge controls, photocell and timers, solar panels remote kits, cabling wires and double-sided advertising panels with aluminium casing.
Homa Bay Business Community chairman Jack Nyambega said crime is resurfacing as the town goes dark again. Various kiosks in Sofia estate and the town’s main market have been broken into and goods stolen.
He said most businesspeople are now forced to close their businesses early for fear of being mugged and poor visibility at night.
“We are almost back to the situation we were before the installation of the solar lights just because of the vandals,” Nyambega said.
He urged the county government to instal more solar lights in major markets and deploy county askaris to protect them and businesses.
“The Homa Bay main market is a major source of revenue for the county government. It should be prioritised,” Nyambega said.
Mary Atieno, a mama mboga at Soko Mjinga market, said they no longer feel safe since the solar lights have either been vandalised or are malfunctioning.
She said they are forced to close early for fear of attack by street children, thieves and even the roaming wild dogs and cats in the dark.
Moses Owino, a boda boda operator in Oyugis, said they are now being forced to end their businesses before 9 in the evening.
They cannot transport their customers, especially in the interior part of the town, due to lack inadequate light for security.
“Kenya Power has installed some streetlights but it is unpredictable. Blackouts can occur at any moment, so we fear transporting our customers at night. Some of us have lost their motorbikes, been injured or even killed by thugs at night while on duty,” he said.
“The county government must keep its promise of installing and maintaining solar lights, which were meant to increase business hours and beef up security.”
In 2016, residents of Oyugis said some people turn up in reflective jackets and a ladder, pretending to be servicing the panels during the day. However, in the end they disappear with the panels.
Homa Bay Bunge la Wenye Nchi speaker Walter Opiyo accused those entrusted with repairs of stealing the panels for a ready market somewhere.
He said it takes a lot of courage for an individual to climb the mast, which is erected next to a busy road, if not an authorised person. He cited an incident in Makongeni estate at the outskirts of the CBD that turned out to be theft.
Opiyo urged the county government to liaise with the police to establish the people behind the theft, which is costing taxpayers millions of shillings.
In budget estimates for the year 2018-19, the county assembly approved another Sh60 million for the installation of market solar lighting and maintenance in all the eight wards.
Some Sh16 million was approved under development allocation for the solar lights maintenance. Another Sh12 million was approved for electric street lighting refurbishment and billing for Kendu Bay, Homa Bay central and Arujo wards in Rachuonyo and Homa Bay Town subcounties to beef up security.
POVERTY, JOBLESSNESS BLAMED
Energy executive Odero Matata admitted that vandalism has been a major problem since the project started, thwarting efforts to improve security and extend business hours.
“This has happened in almost all the town centres. People climb or cut down the poles and steal various parts of the system,” he said.
“This has led to stalling of about 30 per cent of the lights and loss of about 10 per cent of the solar masts.”
He said 450 of the initial solar lights installed need replacement due to slow maintenance process.
“We have in the current budget allocated funds to replace the batteries and solar panels vandalised, as well as those that have worn out. We have also requested for new lights to be installed in uncovered markets,” Matata said.
The executive urged residents to be vigilant and report any vandals to the police. He denied that some county employees tasked with servicing the lights are involved in the vandalism.
Matata warned culprits that anyone found responsible, including the scrap metal dealers, will be arrested. He said his department will soon start a campaign to educate the public against vandalism of streetlights.
The executive blamed the vandalism on poverty, unemployment and hunger for quick cash by the scrap metal dealers, as well as road accidents.
He said the county will instal more solar light backups at public facilities to promote low-cost use of alternative sources of energy and to light more market centres to prevent insecurity and promote business hours for residents.
It will channel proceeds from advertisements to supporting youths and women to enable them start small-scale businesses by accessing low-interest loans, he said.