Visit to Lake Victoria
3rd Blog from Programme Support Volunteer Matt Kinsella
Over the last couple of weeks, Renewable World’s Global Programmes Manager Nick Virr, and Trustee Peter Weston have been visiting Kenya. Their trip was an opportunity to review strategy and work plans for the East Africa programme with Regional Programme Manager Geoffrey Mburu, and to meet several current and potential partners to discuss collaboration. Personally, this was an interesting opportunity to gain some deeper insight into Renewable World’s work in the region, and to meet some of the other organisations based here. However, for me, the highlight of Nick and Peter’s visit was a week-long field trip to the shores of Lake Victoria, where our RESOLVE programme sites are located.
The trip began with an hour’s flight to Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city after Nairobi and Mombasa. Like its bigger brothers, the city was strategically important in the colonial era, as a key station on the Uganda Railway. Completed in 1901, the railway stretched from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, through the major depot at Nairobi, to the rail terminus and inland port at Kisumu. Goods and raw materials were shipped across Lake Victoria from Uganda to Kisumu by steam ship, then transported by rail across Kenya to the sea. It is still a bustling place, with more than 400,000 residents, and when we arrived, the city was dark, humid and wet, in the wake of a large thunderstorm.
Kisumu is also home to our RESOLVE programme partners, FASCOBI and Osienala, two local NGOs working in the region on social and environmental issues. On our first full day in town, Renewable World chaired a workshop with these partners, to review progress on the programme, and discuss our plans for the week ahead. Installation of all six solar energy hubs is now finished, and the programme is nearing completion. The remaining work is focussed on ensuring that the community organisations which manage the energy hubs are sustainable, through ongoing capacity-building and training. More than the technology itself, it is this community engagement and participation which will secure the long-term success of the programme and ensure that it achieves meaningful impact.
On Monday morning we were collected from the hotel in Kisumu just after dawn, and began the first of many long, hot and dusty car journeys. We spent the day meeting local government officials and politicians in Homa Bay County and Migori County, briefing them on the completion of the programme, and seeking support and partnership opportunities for future RESOLVE installations. In both counties we were warmly welcomed, and news about the programme was received with genuine interest – in these predominantly rural counties, poverty and energy access are important issues for over-stretched local government bodies.
From Tuesday through to Thursday, we visited the RESOLVE programme communities themselves. We covered hundreds of kilometres, largely on rocky dirt roads, to reach these remote villages dotted around the coast of Lake Victoria. Aside from the warmth of the welcome we received, and the curiosity displayed by the local children, the first thing to strike me about the villages was how picturesque they all are. Each settlement clings tightly to the edge of the lake, with gentle waves lapping against the verdant green shores. Hills rise up behind, dotted with rocks and trees. Close by the village centre is usually a beach or landing area, where brightly coloured boats are moored, and fishing nets dry in the bright sun. Cattle and goats wander lazily through the narrow streets. A warm breeze blows in across the water, which stretches beyond the horizon to the far shores in Uganda and Tanzania.
Yet life for the residents of these communities is hard. On average, the residents are living on incomes of less than two US dollars a day and the signs of poverty are obvious. Homes and other buildings in these communities are roughly constructed from earth and corrugated tin, and provide only the bare minimum of living space. There is no mains water, sewerage or power. Toilets are basic communal facilities, shared among the residents. In some of the villages, suggestions of social or environmental problems are also visible – evidence of alcohol abuse in one village, widespread littering in another.
Most of the communities have a central meeting place of some kind – usually a covered arcade, open at the sides, where villagers can gather in the shade. It is here where we meet with the energy hub committees, discussing their experiences, and speaking with energy customers about how they are using the electricity. Some people have issues to raise and questions to ask. Others want to express their thanks, or to describe how electricity has helped them make changes in their lives. We are told of how children are now able to study in the evenings using clean lighting. We hear of how electricity is helping people to earn new income – charging mobile phones, selling cold soda, chilling fresh fish. We see the determination of local committee
members to make a success of their new asset, and to grow their incomes and their systems in future. Nearby to these central meeting points are the solar energy hubs themselves, and we have an opportunity to inspect the completed works and review any technical matters before we leave. The gleaming solar panels and metal cabinets stand in sharp contrast to the earth dwellings which surround them – ancient building techniques and a traditional way of life, side-by-side with the most modern of energy technologies.
Our week culminated in a capacity-building workshop in Homa Bay, attended by representatives from each of the RESOLVE programme communities, where Renewable World and their partners delivered training on issues such as sustainability, business planning, entrepreneurial skills, technical operations and maintenance. The communities had a chance to meet one another, to share their ideas and experiences, and to take part in a joint business planning exercise. My feeling is that most of the attendees went home full of new ideas, having reaffirmed their enthusiasm for the programme, and proud to be playing an important role in the development of their communities. For my part, I went back to Nairobi with a newfound respect for the hard work and commitment of my colleagues and our partners, and, above all, for the perseverance of the communities themselves.