At 6 am, Jacqueline Mwendo arrives at the dispensary of Olosho-Oibor, a remote village in Kajiado County south of Nairobi in Kenya.
Even at first light, a dozen patients are waiting for Mwendo, a nurse who has been singlehandedly running the small health centre in this vulnerable region for two years. The burden on her has eased in the past few months since the clinic has been connected to Kenya’s national grid.
“Before, we only had a small photovoltaic panel. The small current did not allow me to power a refrigerator to store medicines and vaccines. Ironically, some 20 wind turbines can be seen a few hundred meters away on the crest of the hill,” she says.
Thanks to reliable and regular electricity, Mwendo now uses a computer to order medications. More importantly, she can use a syringe sterilizer and medical monitoring equipment. She can also respond to nighttime emergencies. “My day-to-day work has improved, and all patients benefit. It’s a vital change,” she says.
The transformation is thanks to the Last Mile Connectivity Project, which the Kenyan government launched in 2017 to connect 47% of the population to the national grid. These are mostly low-income and rural populations, whose economic prospects would benefit significantly from energy access.
Born without a left hand, Peter Muthoka needed an electric pump to draw water he could use to grow maize. But he lacked access to electricity and was forced to rely on a generator which consumed costly oil and gave off toxic fumes. Even more frustrating: Peter could “see” electricity but not use it. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company had installed a low voltage transformer a few hundred meters from Peter’s well; however, the cost of connecting to electricity then was too high.
“This project is not profitable to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company. However, access to electricity is a right of every citizen in Kenya, and we owe it to ourselves to provide electricity to all,” said George Tarus, project manager for the Last Mile Connectivity Project.
The Kenya Power and Lighting Company is using its 45,000 distribution transformers across the country to ensure that anyone within 600 meters can gain access to electricity.
Muthoka was among the project’s first beneficiaries. Since being connected he can pump much more water and reinvest the cost savings from not having to run a generator into his production capacity. Now, he grows tomatoes and more maize, which he and his wife sell at the market. “If I continue like this, I will build a beautiful house here on my land to accommodate my whole family and live out my last days,” he says hopefully.
The African Development Bank has supported the project with a loan of $135 million. Extending electricity access is a strategic priority of the Bank, as set out in its New Deal for Energy in Africa. Lighting up Africa is also one of the Bank’s High 5 strategic priorities. And with good reason: Access to electricity stimulates entrepreneurship and job creation.
Just ask Joel Kasiva, from Mwatate in Kenya’s Machakos County. Kasiva used to live with his two sons in a house without electricity. He owned a plot of land but rode a motorcycle cab each day to Tala, a nearby city, to look for work. In 2019, Kasiva’s homestead was connected to electricity, and he opened a grocery store, and then a hairdressing salon equipped with a curling iron, hairdryer, electric clippers, and most recently a television. Business is thriving. “I have more income for school, for health and I save for the future,” he says. “I am happy! My son wants to be a disc jockey and I was able to offer him training and buy him equipment.”
And Kasiva is not alone. Since connecting to the grid, the village has gained a mill, a fodder grinder and a heater.
Kenya’s electrification rate hit 75% in early 2021, up from 53% in 2016, and progress continues. Achieving 100% electrification by 2026 no longer seems like a pipe dream. A year ago, the African Development Bank extended a second loan to connect at least 285,000 additional individuals and 15,000 businesses via low voltage lines and transformers. At the same time, Kenya continues to invest in renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, to ensure the country’s energy self-sufficiency.
“Without electricity, Kenyans will remain in the dark,” says Muthoka. “And Kenya wants to shine on the international scene.”