Erratic power supplies in Kenya will curtail economic growth, battering a population struggling through a political crisis and rising inflation fueled by high oil prices.
Power cuts are becoming a daily routine in Nairobi and the rest of the country. Businesses are incurring losses due to many hours of lost productivity. Those opting to supplement power supplies with oil-fired generators are having to deal with rising fuel costs averaging Kshs97 (US$1.6) a litre for petrol. Power spikes, surges and low-voltage have ruined electrical equipment across the country necessitating extra costs in purchase of power stabilization systems.
Informal businesses located in the city’s residential areas and which cannot afford the use of generators are most affected. Owners of cybercafes, secretarial bureaus, salons, barbershops, welding workshops and motor vehicle garages watch helplessly as employees idle for hours due to lack of electricity.
There are fears that erratic power supply is likely to grow into full fledged power rationing very soon as demand for electricity outstrips the supply. Fears of power rationing are credible given a slow pace in developing new power stations inspite of a supply reserve of less than 10% of national demand (the global standard is 15%). The last period of power rationing in Kenya was between 1999 and 2001 which resulted in two consecutive years of negative economic growth.
Unsatisfactory electricity supply is attributed to rising demand recorded in the past five years. The suburbs of Nairobi have witnessed rapid construction of high rise flats in Umoja, Mathare North, Donholm, Kileleshwa, Kilimani, Ongata Rongai among other areas. An ambitious street lighting program in all of Kenya’s towns has increased the demand for power. For instance, the town of Garissa has street lights for the first time in its history. Meanwhile, industries that had hibernated during the Nyayo era gained a fresh lease of life thanks to a booming economy, putting further strain on the electricity supply system.
Kenya’s power producer has allayed fears of an electricity crisis. The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) says that the commissioning of the Sondu Miriu Hydro Electric power station in Western Kenya late last year should alleviate the possibility of supply shortfalls. KenGen is sourcing funds to expand geothermal power generation at Olkaria.
Its worth noting that until Sondu Miriu last year, no major hydroelectric dam had been built since the 1980s. That was when the Seven Forks Scheme on Tana River and the Turkwell Gorge project were completed. Whereas Sondu Miriu is expected to produce less than 100 Megawatts after a decade of construction, the Seven Forks and Turkwell mega projects still produce over 500 Megawatts in total.
The Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC) which distributes power from KenGen to consumers is on a multi-billion shilling programme to expand its distribution network. KPLC is putting up additional transformers as well as installing thicker conductors to transmit more electricity. KPLC is importing electricity poles after its local suppliers were unable to meet its requirements.
Nevertheless, Kenya’s business community cannot be blamed for viewing both KenGen and KPLC with skepticism. The state has a large controlling stake in both corporations, making them susceptible to political pressure. For instance, the tenures for KPLC’s Canadian expatriate managers are about to expire with little indication that the Ministry of Energy will renew the contracts. If anything, there is speculation that management of KPLC could be used as a reward to political operatives.
In 2006, the Ministry of Energy accused the KPLC of failing to utilize billions of shillings meant for rural electrification yet there were thousands of potential customers lining up to be connected. KPLC is also criticized for spending more money on administration than it spends on plant and machinery. The company buys new fleets of maintenance trucks every few years with little tangible results.
KPLC emergency crews are notorious for inefficient and corrupt practices. A woman in Nairobi told the Nairobi Chronicle how KPLC personnel demanded bribes to fix her electricity meter despite the fact that it was on fire!