Kenya solar energy farm yet to see the light of day

Mary Nyambura, 62, passed the open field whenever she went to the market at her village in Kagati in Mathira Constituency in Nyeri County. 

It was expansive, an uneven surface of green that some of the boys in the village played on as they shepherded their family livestock. Occasionally, it was a venue for meetings. 

That evening of June 2016 as she passed by the field, it looked the same but she knew in a few months the green of the field would make way for the shimmering black of solar panels. 

She had seen solar panels on the roof of her neighbours’ houses. But in the meeting they had that day with their governor Nderitu Gachagua, he told them that the whole area would be filled by solar panels, hundreds of them, to harness the abundant sun in the area to produce electricity.  

The project, he said, would cost Sh6 billion. The land would be leased to investors for twenty years before the project reverted back to the community.  

“When this project is complete we are going to add 40 Megawatts to the national grid,” the governor said then.  

He said the days of power rationing during the dry season when levels in the country hydropower dams are low were behind them. 

So when he had asked who approved of the project she said yes. She shouted yes to the cheaper and consistent electricity they had been promised, to the promise of 2000 jobs for the many jobless youth in the area. 

That was almost four years ago. Now village boys still play on that 134-acre parcel of land as they shepherd their family livestock. The plans to set up a solar farm in Kiamariga never saw the light of day, they remain gathering dust in a shelf in the governor’s office. 

But residents who expected to have to abandon the use of paraffin lamps after their homes connected to the electricity are now nursing feelings of betrayal. 

“We were very happy that we were going to have our own power. But the plans went to the council (Nyeri County Assembly) and we were never told what happened,” Nyambura said. 

In an area where the majority are tea farmers, having their own power supply would mean that some of the electricity would be used to power the nearby Ragati Tea Factory and reduce the energy cost. 

Electricity makes up a significant portion of the cost of tea processing, a cost that is taken from the farmer’s earnings.  

The governor said the county would sign a power purchase agreement with the Kenya Power and Lighting Company to buy any surplus. 

The earning, he assured the residents, would come back to them as better roads, better equipped hospitals and even scholarships for their children so they can work skilled jobs at the power plant. 

Rooftop solar panels are ubiquitous but this would have been the first implementation of a solar farm by a county government.  

According to the 2019 Kenya National Housing and Population Census, 19.3 percent of the households in Kenya have solar connections, slightly over half use main electricity 

It was only until November 2019 that Kenya launched the Chinese built 50 MW Garissa Solar Plant which cost Sh13.5 billion to complete and is dubbed as the largest grid connected solar power plant in East & Central Africa. 

The Kiamariga Solar Farm would have been the second such project in Kenya by output, and the first project of such magnitude to be handled by the devolved units. 

It output would have been significant enough to power the entire town. For  instance, according to the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation, the plant in Garissa contributes about 2% of the national energy mix.

But Nyambura and countless of other residents are puzzled as to why a project that would have been life changing for them never took off. 

It had been planned to the last detail, to the extent that a developer had been identified. Then everything went silent.

Ndegwa Macharia, a lawyer practicing in Nyeri Town and who has viewed for a Ward Representative seat in Ruguru Ward where Kiamariga is located, said residents were never given an explanation why the project was abandoned.

“We do not have a clear picture of what happened. We were told that it was something to do with the land,” Macharia said.

Baragu Mutahi, who served as the Nyeri County Assembly Majority Leader between 2013 – 2017 said the project admitted that the project might have been good but there were issues with its tendering.

“The project might be good but it has a lot of hidden facts that need to come to light,” he wrote in 2016 to Robert Thuo the county executive for energy querying the selection of  Khumar Associates to undertake the project.

As the project languishes, all the residents are clutching to is hope.

“Maybe the new governor will revive it. We still want our own power,” Macharia said.

Allan Mungai
Allan is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes for The Standard - whether it is about the smuggling of migrants across Kenya or the abuse of government sanctioned logging. Some of his reporting on logging, climate change and drying rivers has contributed to policy changes. When he is not writing, Allan is scratching his head over his receding hairline.