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Wind power project raises development hopes in N. Kenya

by Evelyn Kahungu | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 November 2011 09:41 GMT

But doubts remain about whether local people will get the electricity, jobs and other benefits they've been promised

SALIMA, Kenya (Panos London/AlertNet) – The impoverished women and children of Salima village in Kenya’s remote arid north have little choice but to beg for food and water from passing traffic along the main route to Loiyangalani on Lake Turkana’s eastern shore.

They live in one of the poorest places in one of the country’s poorest districts, on the fringes of the Chalbi Desert. Home to tribes of semi-nomadic pastoralists, the region has experienced years of paralysing droughts that have killed many of the animals.

Most of the men have left to look for work in towns, and the few who have stayed are out hunting for water and pasture for their remaining goats and sheep, among the scattered acacia trees and black lava rocks. Environmental stress has led to an increase in raids on livestock and inter-ethnic conflict. Guns, slung across men’s shoulders, are a common sight.

Decades of under-investment in the area mean there are no tarmac roads and the “dry weather roads” that exist get washed away in the wet season. Many families depend on international food aid, and there is little access to healthcare and education.

Yet there is one thing this desolate spot does have in abundance: wind. Blowing south from the Sahara and the Ethiopian highlands across the border, it could bring a better future for local people - or so they have been promised.

Attracted by the potential of what experts say is one of the windiest places on earth, a consortium of Dutch and Kenyan investors, led by the African Development Bank, has leased 25,000 square kilometres of land to build Africa’s biggest wind farm, at a projected cost of 585 million euros ($819 million).


Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) plans to erect more than 350 towering wind turbines on the desert expanses near the shores of the world’s biggest permanent desert lake. The project aims to produce 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year, boosting Kenya’s energy supply by 30 percent.

This, in turn, is expected to boost the Kenyan economy while aiding local development and reducing poverty in the area.

Kenya certainly needs to increase its energy supply. More than 80 percent of the country has no access to grid electricity. The situation is even worse in rural areas, where only 4 percent of households are connected.

The residents of Salima - the only village that falls within the boundaries of the wind project - are among the 96 percent of rural Kenyans without electricity, lacking power for lights, cooking, water pumps, radio and television.

An average Kenyan family spends 20 Ksh ($0.25) on kerosene every night, adding up to $91 per year, according to Erik Hersman, a Nairobi-based technology expert and blogger, making cheap, sustainable alternatives are welcome. More widely, education, agricultural improvements and the expansion of municipal water systems and industrial activity all require abundant, reliable and cost-effective energy access.

Around two thirds of Kenya’s energy currently comes from hydropower - which is good until the rains fail.

Prolonged drought in 2009 caused riverbeds to dry up and crippled the country’s hydroelectric plants. Rolling blackouts around the country, from industry centres to shantytowns, forced manufacturers and other businesses to reduce output.

And the cost of the country’s unreliable power network is passed on to the people. Kenya’s oil import bill in 2008 consumed 55 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings from exports, according to a research paper by Jeremiah Kiplagat, a researcher at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University.

As a result of these factors, energy prices have soared, hitting residential and business customers alike, while supplies remain unpredictable.


Given the key role of electric power in supporting economic and social development, funding rural electrification is regarded as a way of alleviating poverty.

In a 2009 African Development Bank report backing the Lake Turkana wind project, promises were made - including new roads, employment opportunities, the installation of two sub-stations to distribute electricity locally, access to good quality water, and development of health and education facilities.

But Mark Ekale, the elected councillor of Loiyangalani, says the community has not yet been given enough information about the project and how it will affect them.

“Lake Turkana Wind Project has only been negotiating with elite members of the community based in Nairobi, and neglecting the grassroots whose lives will be greatly affected by the project once it commences,” he said.

Nearly all the local benefits outlined in 2009 have yet to be realised, Ekale says, although the project sometimes delivers water to local communities.

Managers say the problem is that the wind power scheme has been stalled several times. It was originally scheduled to be producing energy by June this year, scaling up to full capacity by 2012.

But when the government watered down financial guarantees for investors, securing the necessary funding took longer than planned. The wind turbines are now due to be installed next year with power generation starting in 2013 and not reaching full capacity until 2014.

Kiama Kaara of the Kenya Debt Relief Network says the LWTP has not provided enough detail on how promises to local people will be fulfilled.

“If you remove the hyperbole, major questions emerge,” he said. “How about the locals, or the nearby areas? How will they benefit? How will the villages join the grid? How will the developmental component of the project be enhanced?”

LTWP director Chris Staubo says a 20-year corporate social responsibility plan will be put in place, funded by a percentage of the project’s profits at no cost to local communities.

They will also benefit from an upgraded 204km road to the remote site, as well as a power transmission line serving Loiyangalani, South Horr, Kulal, Gatab and Kargi, according to Staubo.

But connections to households have to be carried out by the state-owned Kenya Power and Lighting Company and power generating company KenGen, as the LTWP is only permitted to generate electricity not distribute it, he adds.


One of the most anticipated elements among local people has been the creation of new jobs, including training to help them learn new skills and lift themselves out of poverty.

Yet, two years on, only 25 local people are employed on a permanent basis. Staubo says an estimated 2,500 people will be taken on for construction, but not all will be local.

“The local community will be a priority, but certain skills must be there [for them to do some jobs],” he explains. “Although menial, basic work will pretty much all be local.”

Peter Njeru, an environmental activist with the charity Food for the Hungry, fears that the negative impacts will outweigh the gains.

“First, local communities might not benefit from the power generated. Second, the scale of the project site means reduced grazing land. Third, the concentration of people around the area will increase human activity, leading to degradation of the land, and lastly noise pollution from the turbines will definitely affect the residents,” he says.

Staubo points out that the construction of the wind farm – including turbines, roads and power transmission lines - presents a significant risk to investors. As the first wind-power power purchase agreement done in Kenya, the government “takes no risk, no guarantees and gets power and a lot of tax payments”, he says.

In May, the LTWP gained approval to generate credits for carbon emission reductions under the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism - the fourth project in Kenya to do so. The consortium says part of the revenues from the carbon credits will be returned to the Kenyan government.

Meanwhile, until the project is operational, the residents of Salima will likely remain in the dark about whether and how it is going to improve their lives.

Evelyn Kahungu is an independent film-maker and producer based in Nairobi. She currently works at Frontier Films and Al Jazeera as a producer.

This feature was produced by Panos London.

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