The toxic bane of the Rift Valley is now being harvested to produce renewable energy
MARIGAT, Kenya, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A goat-killing toxic shrub that was the bane of this Rift Valley town now has a new starring role: a clean fuel that lights homes and can earn villagers up to $1,000 a year.
Jane Chirchir is one Marigat resident who has turned the tables on the invasive Prosopis juliflora, a kind of mesquite tree. The dense shrub, which can grow up to 12 metres (39 feet) in height, had spread across the area, choking grazing land and poisoning livestock.
Now mathenge, as it is known locally, it is being harvested and sold as fuel for an electric power station that has for the first time brought power to some village homes and reduced power cuts at others.
"The company buys the raw materials from us," said a happy Chirchir. "This is helping my family recover the loss we incurred when our goats died after eating mathenge." She said she had lost 15 animals to the pest.
Using the shrub for fuel represents a turnaround for villagers, who five years ago faced economic collapse after a court rejected a lawsuit seeking to force the government to clear the invasive plant from their land and compensate herders for their losses.
Most of the 560,000-strong population of Baringo County, which stretches over 11,000 square kilometres (4,200 square miles), are livestock herders.
The plant was first introduced into the area about 25 years ago by the Kenyan government and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to serve as a windbreak to cut erosion and slow desertification.
But planting the invasive species had unintended consequences. Village elders said that when goats ate pods from the mathenge the seeds stuck in the animals' gums, poisoning them.
Others claimed that the shrub's long and deep roots encroached upon the foundations of their homes, eventually destroying them.
Now, however, the plant's very ability to spread and regenerate rapidly is causing money to flow into Chirchir's home, and many others, as villagers harvest and sell it as biomass fuel to a power generation plant in Marigat.
ENERGY AND INCOME
Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Ltd. has collaborated with the government to build the plant on a 15-acre (6-hectare) plot on the outskirts of the village. The facility - the first in the country to use mathenge for fuel - burns harvested bundles of the shrub, converting the plant into electricity.
Company officials say more than 2,000 families in Chirchir's village have initially been enlisted to supply mathenge, with more to be recruited. The company anticipates paying about $4 million every year to community members.
The company pays 2 Kenyan shillings (about $0.02) per kilo of mathenge and anticipates that each of the village suppliers will pocket about $1,000 every year.
The project aims to generate 12 megawatts of power annually for the next 20 years, officials said.
Cummins Cogeneration Kenya is investing around $22 million in mathenge-burning plants in the region, including others in Kenya's Coast region and in South Sudan. Official said the facilities aim to generate 60 percent of the electricity produced from the toxic shrub.
In Baringo County, where Marigat is located, the power will be distributed under the supervision of the local government.
"Cummins Cogeneration Kenya has partnered with us and has agreed to share some of this energy with the community through the county energy grid," said Baringo County Commissioner Benard Leparamarai. "We have provided resources like land, raw materials and political goodwill on our part."
The company expects to produce about $8 million worth of energy annually. Waste from the combustion process will be recycled into charcoal briquettes for sale, officials said.
Families are not alone in celebrating the turnaround. Medics in Baringo County hope the project will end the struggle of the region's medical facilities with power shortages.
Due to poor rural electrification networks, clinics and hospitals sometimes go for a week without power, said Robat Rono, a medic at Marigat health centre. Facilities far from urban centres must rely mostly on generators, he added.
"The energy project is going to be a game changer for the people and the economy of this region," he said. "We are even planning to increase our hospital bed capacity if this energy source proves reliable."
(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)
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