Solar power to the people

China leads the world when it comes to renewables. It is not only the largest producer of solar energy, it also dominates solar panel manufacturing, producing more than 80 per cent of the global supply.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledged in 2021 to “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy”. Image: Wayne S. Grazio, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Heading north from the town of Garissa in eastern Kenya, the dusty road forms a straight line a few hundred metres away from the bends of the Tana River. Nothing hints of the river’s presence. All around is only desert and thorny shrub, with the occasional mosque and a scattering of tin-roofed homes.

Also hidden from the road is something that seems even more incongruous out here in one of Kenya’s poorest counties. In the middle of the desert, 14 kilometres from the centre of Garissa, there’s a vast sea of glimmering panels set out in uniform lines – the largest grid-connected solar power plant in East and Central Africa.

Mohammed Abdi, an elder from the nearby village of Raya, remembers when then President Uhuru Kenyatta opened the plant in December 2019.

“We were promised that every household would be provided with solar-powered electricity. But so far, this hasn’t happened. It would help us a lot with our farming. It’s costly to irrigate.”

Raya isn’t connected to Kenya’s national grid. To farm in this drought-ridden area, Abdi and his fellow villagers rely on an old diesel pump, which sucks up groundwater to irrigate crops and grow fodder for their animals. “If this machine ran on electricity, it wouldn’t cost as much,” says Abdi. “And we’re right next to the biggest solar power plant.”

If somebody cannot afford a solar lantern today at 550 shillings (US$4.40), the problem is not access. The problem is poverty.

Andrew Amadi, CEO, Kenya Renewable Energy Association

The residents of Raya say they gave up more than 200 hectares of their land to make way for the power plant, but have so far seen few benefits in return.

So, who is benefitting? What’s the bigger picture? These are the questions we will explore in this second instalment of our two-part series on just transitions, brought to you by Africa Climate Conversations in collaboration with China Dialogue.

New kid on the block

Mother-of-five Ilgeymo Hassan is another resident of Raya. Just like Abdi, she sat on the committee formed to represent the community’s interests in negotiations with the company that built the power plant.

“We proposed a lot of projects such as bringing in teachers and nurses for our health centre, but none of this has happened. We [women] expected jobs such as cooking and cleaning, but nothing. We thought we would get this work to help support our families during this time of drought. I’m angry because we are not benefiting at all.”

Although the community originally agreed to the plant and were paid for their land, Abdi says that without the other benefits they were promised, they now regret their decision. “I wish we’d been more enlightened as a community. We shouldn’t have given up our land. We used to graze our livestock there, but the area isn’t accessible any more.”

Covering 85 hectares, the solar project was funded by a US$136 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. That is a relatively small amount compared to the US$1.5 billion sprung by the bank for phase two of the standard gauge railway discussed in the first part of this series.

With a capacity of 54 MW, the plant is also relatively small, especially when compared to projects like the Lamu coal power plant, which had a planned capacity of over 1,000 MW. But Lamu and its polluting coal have now been shelved. And as Kenya’s first and still only major solar power plant, Garissa stands in stark contrast as a noteworthy step towards the country’s goal of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Kenya is already well on its way to this goal, in part thanks to supportive policies such as VAT exemptions on renewable energy products, and in part thanks to abundant supplies.

As of 2021, roughly 81 per cent of the country’s installed power capacity came from renewable sources, predominantly geothermal, hydropower and wind. Thanks to the country’s position on the Great Rift Valley, geothermal leads the way and will continue to do so, with a current installed capacity of over 850 MW, and various projects underway that should realise a capacity of over 1,100 MW.

Next to geothermal, grid-connected solar is the new kid on the block, despite an estimated potential of 15,000 MW. At present, installed capacity is only a little over 170 MW, although there are more than six projects similar to Garissa currently underway. But this only accounts for a very small percentage of the total installed capacity of 2,990 MW (as of 2021), and Garissa’s contribution accounts for only 2 per cent.

South–south cooperation

The Garissa power plant was not only fully financed by China, it was also built by a Chinese company: the Jiangxi Corporation for International Economic and Technical Cooperation.

This is far from surprising. China leads the world when it comes to renewables. It is not only the largest producer of solar energy, it also dominates solar panel manufacturing, producing more than 80 per cent of global supply – more than double its domestic demand, according to a recent IEA report. In addition, while the country has until quite recently been concentrating on its own renewables market, there is now increased interest in investing overseas. This follows Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge in 2021 to “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy”.

It all falls into what has already become a familiar pattern of overseas investment under China’s global infrastructure development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative.

From the Kenyan perspective, Garissa would have been impossible without overseas support. And China’s cheap solar panels and world-leading expertise make it an obvious partner. The project is helping the country meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet its own development goals.

One of these goals is to supply all Kenyan households with electricity, part of the country’s Vision 2030 programme to provide a “high quality of life to all its citizens” by the end of this decade. At least 75 per cent of the population are already connected, although this falls to 65 per cent in rural areas.

Local solar solutions

Although the community of Raya has so far missed out on electrification, it’s a different story in Garissa. The county town was connected to the national grid in 2016, and its substation now receives and distributes all the new solar power plant’s electricity. Roughly 5 MW is used locally, making a big difference for residents, who previously suffered from frequent blackouts.

Elizabeth Njoki owns an eatery and fresh food stall, and previously used a diesel-powered generator to reliably run her three refrigerators.

“Electricity is very important for us, especially in my business, because I have a lot of appliances such as warmers and refrigerators,” she says. “When there’s a blackout it affects us a lot. But we’re no longer experiencing power outages like we did before – sometimes we’d be without electricity for three days in a week.”

With a reliable supply of electricity from the grid, Njoki says her business has become more productive, and her losses from wasted food have decreased. The only downside is that now she’s using more electricity from the grid, her bills have increased significantly.

“Although we have plenty of power now, my monthly bills have become very expensive, and I can’t always afford to pay them. Sometimes my supply gets disconnected because of delayed payments,” she says.

One way Njoki has sought to cut these bills is by investing in her own solar-power system. “It’s not enough to power all the appliances I need for my business. But if it can reduce my electricity bills, that would help a lot.”

Small, home-based solar systems are used widely in Kenya. For Andrew Amadi, CEO of the Kenya Renewable Energy Association, one of the main reasons is that the equipment is increasingly affordable. “And then once you pay for it, that’s it, you are not paying another cost again,” he says.

“The biggest demand for solar electricity is not from people who don’t have electricity,” says Amadi. “It is from people who are connected to electricity. That is who they are selling the most solar home systems to, it’s to people who are connected to the grid already. It is inevitable that people will generate their own power. And what is making this self-generation possible is that it is now based on renewable energy, and it is cheaper. And this is directed to people who are using it for income generation.”

Amadi sees great potential for solar power in Kenya. “People will discover that the cheapest energy for manufacturing is electricity in Africa,” he says. “And we want to push for industries to move and take advantage of [the fact] that it is cheapest to use electricity in Africa. So bring your production to Africa at the lowest cost.”

‘Africa is holding the keys’

For Amadi, solar and other renewables should be seen as Africa’s way of addressing the climate crisis as well as issues of climate justice.

“If there are things that we can make here using solar, cheaper, we cut down emissions and we also improve the livelihood of our people,” he says, adding that if the people of Africa were to pursue the same model of development seen in the west, “then nobody in this world stands a chance”.

“Africa is holding the keys. So Africa also needs to benefit in a substantial way,” he says.

In a place like Garissa county, the climate crisis is undeniable. The rains have failed four years in a row here, leading to the worst drought for 40 years. The Kenyan government estimates about 4.5 million people in the northern and eastern regions of the country now face the threat of starvation and are in need of humanitarian support.   

Poverty increases the impact climate disasters like this can have. To make Kenyans more resilient, Amadi argues that reducing poverty should be a policy focus. And, like the government, he believes that access to electricity has a key role to play in this.

“Let us take productive use of renewable energy technologies to the most desperate people, where they are taking the food aid right now. Take productive use of renewable energy to that community and give them equity in a real business. Then you will have addressed the issue of access, because it’s not just access to the technologies, it’s also access to financial opportunities.”

He adds that: “If somebody cannot afford a solar lantern today at 550 shillings (US$4.40), the problem is not access. The problem is poverty.”

A ‘turnkey package’

It’s clear that solar energy is closely tied to development in Kenya. But what role will the Garissa solar power plant play?

Ulrich Elmer Hansen from the Technical University of Denmark has studied the project as part of his research into the renewable energy transition in developing countries.

He says Garissa is typical of China’s method of investing in large infrastructure projects overseas, which usually follows a “tight model, where money, capital, technology, knowledge and [even] labour in some cases, are part of a turnkey package”.

A “turnkey package” is a project in which the contractor takes on everything from the design to the supply of materials and the construction. Chinese turnkey projects usually include the finance too.

For Hansen, the problem with this type of investment is that, while Kenya now has the hardware it wants, it hasn’t gained much else out of the collaboration. “What else is there to it?” he asks. “To what extent did knowledge actually become exchanged? To what extent did local companies actually engage in this project?”

When it comes to Garissa, the conclusion he reaches is that “these elements were relatively modest, in the sense that the amount of local labour, the amount of local content, the amount of technology knowledge capabilities were at the lower end of the continuum.”

The Kenyan government would argue against this. According to those involved in the project, 600 local people were employed in the construction process, and the Chinese company trained 50 Kenyan technicians.

Make use of what you’ve got

Hansen emphasises that it’s not just Chinese investment that follows this “tight model”. Western projects are often the same, he says.

But it doesn’t always have to be this way. There are examples from other African countries, such as Benin, where governments have set down strict conditions for Chinese and other foreign investment, resulting in more local employment and better transfer of skills.

Hansen also thinks there’s a lot of potential for Kenya to benefit in a more rounded way from this kind of investment. “If you look at the broader picture, the solar sector in Kenya is well known. There are a lot of companies and businesses engaged in importing, selling, installing, servicing and maintaining solar systems. So I would say that there are a lot of competencies and a lot of knowledge of domestic or local businesses that are involved in this, and that are very capable of handling installation, servicing and so on.”

When it comes to the manufacturing, Hansen doesn’t think it makes much sense for a country like Kenya to try to compete with China. But the skills already developed here – mostly thanks to the widespread use of smaller solar systems – could, with the stimulus provided by projects like Garissa, become their own driver of economic growth.

“Maybe the way to go for industrial policymaking in this area is to look more closely at these auxiliary service activities. It could be engineering, consulting, all kinds of repair, maintenance and service activities. So once a project is installed in Kenya, there would be an ecosystem of local companies specialised in different areas of services around those projects. And thereby these companies or local industries could actually capture a much larger share of the economic benefits that are around these projects.”

So, there’s a lot of potential and hope for Kenya. But this is sometimes hard to see in a place like Raya village. For the residents there, it’s clear more needs to be done to make this transition Kenya’s going through just and equitable.

Local farmer Harun Luhos Nunow looks out at the dry, dusty earth around his home. “With the drought we’re virtually starving, and our livestock lack pasture. Yet all that land where our animals could once graze, and where we used to cut wood to make charcoal, is now under solar panels. The government needs to make sure that as a community we benefit from this solar plant with access to affordable electricity and jobs,” he says.

“What’s the point of living next to the largest solar project in East Africa when it’s of so little benefit to us?”

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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