From drinking water to coffee pulping in Kenya

October 16, 2012

A week on the road in Kenya is an exhilarating but exhausting experience. This is exactly what I embarked upon recently, scoping and developing a range of future projects for Renewable World East Africa.

Our first destination was the Maasai Mara, to visit a number of off-grid communities which have seen little benefit from the influx of tourism over the past 30 years. We travelled with Mark Wopicho, a Kenyan entrepreneur who set up Windgen, a renewable energy supplier specialising in manufacturing small wind turbines locally. 
Students in the communities of Siana, Nkoilale and Nturumeti are currently unable to study in the evenings; lack of lighting in houses makes ‘homework’ impossible and students have no choice but to leave school well before dusk to avoid lions, hyenas and elephant encounters on the way home. Not a risk we would associate with going to school in the UK! Teachers explained that lighting would mean boarding houses could be established and pupils would have more time for study later in the afternoons and evenings, increasing their chances of passing the Kenyan Certificate of School Education. There are also possibilities for adults to access facilities, such as computer and internet, at the weekends. 
Schools provide an excellent entry point for village electrification activities: the benefit is immediate and the whole community becomes aware of renewable energy potential. Renewable World is currently working with these schools to assess the viability of developing sustainable business models for school-owned electrification systems. In parallel, Renewable World is identifying possible technical design solutions and suppliers. If successful, this project has the potential to provide a blueprint for replicating renewable energy access in schools across the province, improving access to education. 

Nturumeti Primary School Tshirt hung on wall in Matimoto women's village

The second part of our trip took us to Makueni district. Despite being only two hours from the capital, this area is one of the poorest and driest in the country. Polly Wachira from SACDEP, a Kenyan NGO specialising in sustainable agriculture, took us to a community where they began work eight years ago. The results were impressive. Having supported a group with farming training, water collection techniques and biogas installation they had gone from strength to strength. Community members showed us the most impressive crop of tomatoes, mangoes and other products.
However, moving further into Makueni the situation was not as promising. We found communities where women and children are travelling 12 km each way to fetch water. Arriving at the ‘source’, they then have to dig up to 20 ft down through the dried up river bed. Some communities had benefited from sand dams which allow slightly easier access to water, but still do not decrease the distance it then has to be carried back to the community. A simple hybrid renewable energy system would enable water to be pumped to a point in the village and stored for drinking and irrigation use. The women who currently spend much of their day collecting water would have time to cultivate more land, and children would be able to spend more time in school.

Muthanki, age 14, collects water Children from a community hoping to build a sand dam with SACDEP

Our final leg took us to a small village called Chebich on the slopes of Mount Elgon, Kenyan coffee country. We collected final technical information on the flow of a waterfall for the design of a pico hydro system for a small coffee pulping factory run by the Kenyan Cooperative Producers Association. With coffee cherries, the sooner they are processed after been picked, the higher the quality and subsequent sale price. For this process, the cooperative currently relies on an ancient diesel generator which, due to high fuel costs, means that coffee cherries often have to wait to be processed, during which time their quality deteriorates. Reliable, low cost hydro power would allow more coffee to be processed more quickly, boosting the cooperative up the value chain. We also explored how excess energy from the pico hydro system could be used to bring lighting to local schools and a health clinic, carrying out needs assessments. 
As ever, we observed incredible dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit in both the partners we work with and the communities themselves. Time after time, we speak to people who require a boost to get started and are then willing to play an active role sustaining a service; be it electricity for a school, water for drinking or energy for pulping coffee cherries. A small amount of money invested in the right renewable energy initiative can radically change each community member’s life.