News / Africa

Power from Small Stream Transforms Kenyan Village

Darren Taylor
This is Part Two of a five-part series on Renewable Energy for Africa 
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5


Little more than a decade ago Mbuiru village in Tungu Kabiri district in central Kenya was a “typical African backwater,” said John Kapolon, of the UK-based Practical Action NGO. 
 
The inhabitants of Mbuiru struggled to survive as subsistence farmers. Some of the villagers had skills such as welding and hairdressing they’d learned in the capital, Nairobi, 115 miles to the south. Many of them dreamed of owning their own businesses.

​But their desire to develop themselves remained unattainable. Mbuiru’s inhabitants were among the estimated 85 percent of Kenya’s population of 43 million who to this day do not have access to electricity, according to the United Nations.
 
“I remember visiting the area and people really had a lot of problems. While communications technology was common in the cities, the people of Mbuiru had to walk long distances to find electricity just to charge their cellphones,” Kapolon recalled, adding, “Really, the people at Mbuiru had nothing….”
 
But they did have a stream that wound its way down the slopes of Mount Kenya past their settlement. It proved to be perfect for a unique project that has transformed Mbuiru into an example of achievement in an otherwise impoverished, neglected district.

  • The government of Kenya intends following the example of the micro-hydro project at Mbuiru in the country’s central highlands (photo: Practical Action)
  • Water from a fast flowing tributary of the Tungu River generates electricity (Photo: Practical Action)
  • A canal leading off the stream takes water to a powerhouse, where electricity is generated.(Photo: Practical Action)
  • An aerial view of the powerhouse at Mbuiru.(Photo: Practical Action)
  • The turbine that drives the generator inside the powerhouse. (Photo: Practical Action)
  • Electricity is channeled to a business center in Mbuiru, where it charges batteries that are used to electrify individual households. (Photo: Practical Action)
  • Electricity has allowed villagers, like this man who’s established a barbershop, to open businesses. (Practical Action)
  • Entrepreneurship now reigns in Mbuiru, as the villagers have a regular supply of electricity as a result of their micro-hydropower venture. (Practical Action)

 
Ideal site
 
Clean power experts from Practical Action visited Mbuiru for the first time in 1999. “We immediately saw that it had a strong stream that could be used to generate electricity,” said Kapolon, a renewable energy project officer for the NGO.

​To be sure that a power generation scheme was sustainable at the village, the NGO employed experts to analyze the River Tungu’s flow records going back 40 years. The data showed that even during times of drought the stream at Mbuiru had never stopped running as it is constantly fed by ice melts and precipitation from nearby Mount Kenya. It was ideal for a micro-hydropower project, said Kapolon.
 
The Tungu Kabiri project harnesses energy from falling water. A weir collects the water, which is then diverted through a concrete canal into a large tank. Water released from the tank goes down a pipeline into a powerhouse containing a turbine and a generator. Energy from the water turns the turbine, which then drives the generator to produce electricity.
 
The community helped build the project. “All the manual labor and a bit of skilled labor, it all came from the community. What Practical Action did was to provide technical support in terms of designing the system and also supervising the construction, and also supplying a turbine and a generator,” said Kapolon.
 
The NGO taught locals to maintain the micro-hydropower system.
 
Pioneering clean power project
 
The venture at Mbuiru is the first of its kind in East Africa and is providing a blueprint to governments in the region for water-saving and renewable energy.

​“Once the turbine turns from the running water, you divert the water back to the stream so you don’t waste water,” said Kapolon. “The big advantages of a micro-hydro plan are that you use little water to produce power, and it’s cheap when compared to other electricity schemes. It’s not very cost intensive because you are not putting up huge structures. You can generate power for one household with very little cost.”
 
Kapolon said the Tungu Kabiri project is capable of generating 14 Kw [kilowatts] of electricity every 24 hours. It cost about $3,500 per installed Kw, so the project cost about $49,000 to implement. In contrast, it costs Kenya more than $30,000 per Kw installed by means of conventional hydropower.
 
The Kenya Power company confirmed that about 60 per cent of the total electricity generated in Kenya is by hydropower, making conventional electricity extremely expensive.
 
Kapolon said the project at Mbuiru doesn’t directly electrify individual houses, but rather provides power to a business centre. There, the electricity charges lead acid batteries, similar to those used in cars, owned by individual households.

​“You charge that battery for…six hours to seven hours. The individual owner of the battery will take it home. Then they can use it [for power] for a number of days, up to four or five days, before returning it back for charging,” Kapolon explained. “At the charging station, householders must pay a little amount, less than a dollar a time, for charging, so it’s very economical and people pay very little for electricity when compared with people living in Nairobi.”
 
The project benefits 200 households [around 1,000 people] in Mbuiru village.
 
Micro-hydro boon
 
Kapolon said perhaps the project’s greatest achievement has been a rise in recent years of educated people emerging from the area.
 
“Children are using the light to study at night. When we started the first phase of this project in 1999, there were no university graduates from this part of the world. There were not even any high school graduates,” he said. “But we have seen over a number of years now, over ten years, we’ve seen the number of graduates increasing. (Local) people are attributing this to the presence of electricity.”

​Computers, such an essential part of modern education and enterprise, are also now fixtures at Mbuiru. “The electricity powers a business center, where people are able to use computers for the first time in their lives. They now use the Internet to check on the latest prices for their agricultural produce, so they know the best prices they can get for their goods at market.”
 
Kapolon said agribusinesses are now flourishing in the village. “They can produce products that are required in the market. They know exactly what is needed in the market, by using the Internet.”
 
Electricity has also made it possible to establish grain mills and refrigeration enterprises for local food producers. “Some of these foodstuffs are perishable, so putting up deep freezers and fridges was very beneficial to the people who were producing perishable goods,” said Kapolon.
 
Farmers now sell more products as food that previously rotted is cold-stored, preserved and taken for sale when the market needs it.
 
Kapolon added, “We also now have businesses [at Mbuiru] that process oil. Some of the villagers grow oil crops, like sunflowers, and they now use electrical equipment to process the oil.”

Power has given villagers entry into the tobacco industry and an assortment of other businesses. “They use the electricity for drying of the tobacco. Currently they have opened a number of enterprises – small ones, like welding, battery charging, hair salons and mobile [phone] charging stations. They are attributing these benefits to the coming of electricity.”
 
Electricity from the micro-hydropower project now also drives pumps that channel water directly to the community, saving the villagers a lot of time and effort. “Getting water was a big challenge previously. They would have to visit the river all the time for water, carrying it manually in jerry cans or buckets,” said Kapolon.
 
Environmental impact
 
Despite the advantages of micro-hydropower, it has its critics. They say it harms the environment by slowing the flow of rivers and streams.

​But Kapolon argued, “If done properly, it doesn’t reduce the amount of water for people. You only divert the water; you don’t harvest it. You return it to the river without any major reduction to the river’s flow. But obviously if you divert large amounts of water, the impact on people will be bad.”
 
He acknowledged that some micro-hydro operations kill fish when they get trapped in pipes. But Kapolon added, “We work with streams that are so small that they don’t have any fish in them.”
 
He maintained that correctly installed micro-hydropower projects are environmentally friendly. “They don’t require big dams to be built, which often have terrible environmental and social effects, when the dams stop river flows or cause flooding,” said Kapolon.

​He pointed out that such projects largely eliminate the need for people to damage forests through collecting wood for fires. They no longer need to use “dirty fuels,” such as diesel for milling grain and kerosene for lighting.
 
Kapolon says the government of Kenya is very impressed with the Tungu Kabiri scheme. “The state wants to emulate its success. They want to roll out similar schemes throughout the country, so we are currently looking at various models to make sure that all of these centers will be sustainable.”
 
Listen to Taylor report on Micro-hydro power
Listen to Taylor report on Micro-hydro poweri
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

You May Like

Polls Open in Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid