opinionBy Alex Awiti
In his book Hot Flat and Crowded Thomas Friedman asks how we will know when Africa stands a chance to climb out of poverty. Friedman volunteers an answer to his question, " it is when I see Angelina Jolie posing next to a vast field of solar panels in Ghana or a wind farm crowded with turbines in Zimbabwe."
Satellite pictures of the earth at night on Google Maps are incredible. The Americas, Europe and Asia are incandescent. But Africa is a vast pit of darkness, except for the glow in the Mediterranean and the Cape.
The World Bank estimates that 75% of households in Africa have no access to electricity. In stark contrast to Egypt and South Africa, Kenya's most fierce competitors, 85% of Kenyans have no access to electricity. Only 4% of Kenya's 78% rural population has access to electricity.
The high cost of grid power partly contributes to low connection among low-income households, especially in rural areas and among the urban poor. The cost of energy is US$ 0.15 per KWh, compared to $0.04 in South Africa and 0.07 in China. Moreover, it costs a family approximately Sh35,000 (US$422) to connect to the grid.
The Kenyan alternative to electricity is biomass. Wood, charcoal, dung and crop residue supply 76% of Kenya's domestic energy needs. There is a strong correlation between exposure to biomass fuel and respiratory infections in children.
A report published by the Ministry of Health in 2004 revealed that acute respiratory infections contribute to 70% of mortality in children aged under 5. According to World Health Organization, biomass energy as a cause of death ranks just behind malnutrition and lack of clean water and sanitation.
Studies in Bangladesh have shown that study time for school children after sunset was 33 percent higher for those whose homes have electricity. Evidence from the Millennium Villages Program shows that access to electricity in rural public schools can provide access to additional online educational resources for both teachers and pupils, and help close the achievement gap between rural and urban schools.
The combined effects of rapid population growth, increased demand for food and declining soil fertility have made it clear that Kenya can no longer provide sufficient food by muscle power and animal dung. Moreover, climate change will constrain food production further, demanding intensive but energy and water efficient irrigation systems.
Every development challenge we face today is also an energy challenge. The high disease burden can be attributed to shortage of doctors and nurses, but also to a lack of energy to boil water, power diagnostic equipment, or refrigerate life saving vaccines. The weak manufacturing and industrial base is about skills shortage, but also unreliable and expensive energy.
Food insecurity is about lack of high quality seeds, fertilizers, climate variability and shortage of power to operate efficient mechanization systems.
Access to energy is highly correlated with economic productivity. The Kenya government recognizes that energy is "one the infrastructural enablers" of the three pillars of Vision 2030.
According to the World Bank, African enterprises report an average of fifty-six days of power outage, causing firms to lose 5-6% of sales revenue. For the informal sector, such losses could be amount to 20% of revenue annually. The frequency of power outages in Kenya is 33%, compared to 1% in South Africa, with production losses of about 9.3%
Novel and innovative policy and technological solutions are needed to deliver sustainable, competitive and equitable energy options for Kenya. However, the policy response as contained in various documents: Sessional Paper No. 4 on Energy; Least Cost Power Development Plan; and, the Renewable Energy Program are insufficient.
These policy documents are long on conventional grid-based options that have led to the current failures. They are short on practical pro-poor low cost, distributed solutions that are critical to improving equity, reliability, sustainability, competiveness and energy security.
Never in our history has energy policy been so important, not only due to its role in powering social, economic development, but also because of its centrality in national security, environmental stability, climate change adaptation and mitigation and job creation. We owe it to the next generation to be audacious and farsighted in the goals we set today.
An audacious and futuristic energy policy should: specify targets for transition to a clean, reliable, secure and competitive energy supply; promote off-grid, distributed energy solutions for rural areas; set a fuel economy standard of 25 kilometers per liter for all cars by 2030, including tax incentives to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles; set a national energy efficiency target of 15-25% by 2030; reduce market entry barriers and provide high quality energy services; and, facilitate legislation to create a Renewable Energy Research Council to set priorities for energy research and integrate evidence-based energy policy across all sectors.
Dr. Awiti is an Ecosystems Ecologist based at Aga Khan University, Nairobi;