NAROK, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Each week, Lucy Wangui, 51, walks from her home, in an isolated hamlet in Kenya’s Narok County, to the local shopping centre 15 kilometers away.
She makes this journey to charge her mobile phone, a critical gadget that keeps her in touch with outside world.
Despite sharing the same county with one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions, the Maasai Mara game reserve, her village has never had electricity. Even at the Ntulele shopping center, phones are charged using car batteries.
Lucy says if electricity were brought to the village it would transform her life. She would no longer have to make her weekly trek, and could finally swap the hand-operated pump she uses to draw water from her well for a motorized one, which would allow her to water her crops more quickly and efficiently.
She may soon get her wish. In one of Africa's biggest cross-border power deals, Kenya is undertaking an ambitious project to import 400 megawatts (MWs) of power from its northern neighbor Ethiopia.
The goal is to bring electricity to 870,000 homes and thousands of businesses in Kenya's Rift Valley region, where only 25 percent of the 2.5 million households currently have power.
Expected to begin in September and be completed by 2018, the project will involve building 1,068 km of high-voltage power lines between southern Ethiopia and the Rift Valley. Two converter stations will also be built, one in Wolaita Sodo, a town in south Ethiopia, and another in Suswa township in Narok, about 25 kilometres from Lucy’s village.
Financed by a group of partners that includes the African Development Bank, the French government, the U.S. government, and the World Bank, the project will cost an estimated $1.26 billion — making it one of the most expensive public-infrastructure ventures Africa has ever seen.
“It is an exciting and promising project that will spur development and help Kenya attain its development projections,” says Patrick Nyoike, Kenya’s outgoing energy permanent secretary.
Kenya currently has the capacity to generate 1,600 megawatts (MW) of power, but needs no less than 14,000 MW to reach its much-touted aim of becoming an industrial-based economy by 2030.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, has the region’s highest power-production potential, thanks to the hydroelectric potential of its many rivers, and its ambitious – and controversial - plans to build new dams. Ethiopia estimates it could generate as much as 37,000 megawatts of clean power in the next 25 years.
According to the African Development Bank, the lines that will carry the power from Ethiopia to Kenya will have the capacity to transmit as much as 2,000 MWs, meaning that Kenya would have the option to purchase even more electricity in the future.
That could lead to lower electricity prices for Kenyans, who pay one of the highest rates in Africa, and help Kenya reach its goals of becoming a middle-income country by 2030.
However, critics say that Ethiopia’s push to transform itself into a regional power exporter comes at a cost. The construction of the Gibbe 2 dam in the country's south has continued to attract opposition from environmentalists, who fear it will cut water flows into Lake Turkana in arid northern Kenya.
Egypt’s president also said this week that his country would not accept any reduction in the flow of the Nile as a result of the dam project, and would keep “all options open” if that occurred – including military action.
The Kenyan government insists that the electricity it will import under its agreement with Ethiopia will not come from Gibbe 2. “This project is not in any way linked to the controversies about the dam," Nyoike said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But the new deal comes with its own controversies. Kenya's wealthy ranchers and tourism companies have opposed the project, saying that the overhead power lines will pass through some of the country's most diverse wildlife areas. That would drive down tourism, they argue, and result in the loss of thousands of jobs.
The Kenyan government has dismissed those concerns, with Nyoike pointing to the fact that there have been no demonstrations against the project as proof that critics are in the minority.
In Ntulele village, Lucy is not concerned with controversy. She just wants the project to begin so that one day soon she might have power to pump water from her borehole to her farm.
She dreams of the day she can finally “irrigate and grow crops in dry seasons," she says. "And,” she says, “grow rich before I’m too old.”
Maina Waruru is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.
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