On the 13th of September, 2022 the 5th president of the Republic of Kenya, H.E. Dr William Samoei Ruto was sworn in. In his inaugural speech, key issues emerged that have defined the first order of business for his administration and that will set the tone. Listening in, there were intersecting issues that are quite pertinent to the current state of the country: energy costs, agricultural productivity and climate action. The president described efforts towards bringing the cost of living down, a state that has caused anxiety, pain and fury among Kenyans more so the high cost of food and transport. The key measures will target empowering producers by availing fertilizer, quality seeds and farm inputs to the farmers. This is opposed to subsidies that aimed to lower one of Kenya’s staple meal maize flour and subsidies on fuel. Another central concern for the government will be climate action, with the president acknowledging the threat and reaffirming the commitment to keep global heating levels below 1.5C, help those in need, end addiction to fossil fuels and transition to 100% clean energy by 2030. So, how do these issues intersect?
First and foremost, energy in Kenya is not accessible even though most of it comes from sustainable sources. Energy is described as accessible if it is clean, affordable, reliable and useable in that the users are not hindered or can acquire necessities for use. This is definitely far from reality more so when looking at cooking energy and energy for productive purposes. What else can explain the electrification rate of about 75 per cent with only 0.9 per cent cooking with it or the dominant use of firewood for processing in key sectors such as the tea sector? What puzzles me, is if about 80 per cent of the country’s energy is generated from renewable energy, why do the electricity bills have an estimate of 35 per cent of the total cost as fuel energy charge, in that an electricity bill of USD 100 is about USD 35 is fuel energy charge?
All the same, electrification in itself is not only an end but a means to an end. I believe the provision of electricity in the country is considered the former and left out the latter. The solution in my view lies in fully exploiting the renewable energy potential of the country, not only hydro, geothermal, sun and wind but also waste, making technologies affordable and providing financing, investing in the energy research and development space in the country and facilitating consumers to be suppliers to enable the meeting of energy needs at all tiers i.e., basic needs such as cooking, productive purposes such as in processing and meeting modern society needs such as ICT.
Kenya aims to abate 32 per cent of her GHGs by 2030. The leading source of emissions is agriculture at 40 per cent characterized by livestock waste and fertilizer applications, with deforestation and energy at 18 per cent. Looking at the companies, institutions and households I have visited, an intersection of challenges and solutions emerges. At one of the universities in Kenya, Egerton University sits a 124m3 dome-shaped digester. It started in March 2007 seeking to supplement Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) at the university's cafeteria serving 3,00o students. It provided electricity for the campus streets and resulted in the university saving an estimated USD 60,000 per year in cooking gas costs with the project having a 3-year return on investment. Being an agricultural-oriented university, biogas was instrumental as it addressed a key headache of animal waste. The slurry from the digester is used in the school farm, further reducing the costs of inputs. The university developed and designed the digester and the cooking stove. They are looking into drying and packaging the bio-slurry to sell as fertilizer.
Olivado, a company that processes extra virgin oil, faced a challenge of waste as they only required 10 per cent of the avocado leaving 90 per cent as waste material. To address this, they set up the largest biogas plant in Africa with a capacity of 450 kW. This energy is now used to run the plant providing its electricity and heating needs. They experimented with the use of the slurry on Khat and found a 67 per cent increase in productivity. The slurry is currently distributed to 3,000 contracted avocado farmers to further enhance their organic farming. Finally, a visit to two farmers in Nakuru, Kenya using biogas. What struck me in both homesteads was the piles of wood neatly arranged around the compounds, a rare sight in rural Kenya households, both expressing they no longer had use for them. One of the homesteads had one cow that was able to provide cooking energy for their 5 people's household and channelled the slurry to their farm, which was strikingly green. This was also the case in the second homestead who had more cows and used the biogas to electrify and automate their farm.
These examples show that solutions to the intersecting problems of energy costs, agricultural productivity and climate action already exist in the country. They are beyond proof of concept and provide a road map of key areas the country should be focussing and investing in. These include research and technology advancements where there should be concerted efforts to fund, partner and collaborate with academic institutions as they provide research and development, the key to adapting solutions to our needs and available resources. For instance, which combinations of agricultural waste work best where and how can systems be designed and adapted to have farmers as energy producers? Companies should also fund and collaborate with such institutions to develop and innovate products that work for the target market. There should be research already that is pushing for affordable technologies to bottle biogas energy or increase production at lower costs in a bid to make energy in the country affordable. Finally, there is a need to push and embrace environmental integrity at a national level with the implementation of a circular economy. This is in addition to knowledge dissemination and capacity building for technologies and maximizing their potential to meet varied needs coupled with the proposals to make renewable energy affordable.