The power of darkness is firing up imaginations and inspiring ordinary villagers to plot schemes out of the suffocating nothingness. The void, at times tempered by mind boggling electricity bills, has triggered unpredictable actions.
In a whirlwind visit to some remote villages, Sunday Standard encountered scores of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to break the shackles of darkness, poverty and unimaginable electricity bills.These villagers are now masters of their own destiny. They have defied the howling desert storms of Garissa and the furious cascade of riotous rivers coursing down the numerous hills and ridges around Mt Kenya to illuminate their homes and dreams.Their triumphs and tribulations are best summed up by one refugee wallowing in Dadaab’s Hagdera camp. Sixteen years ago, Adow Mahdi, bored by darkness and joblessness, wagered his ration card at the refugee camp to secure an old generator on loan.
After a number of repairs and modifications which required a Sh85,000 alternator, radiator, an injector pump and a new set of pistons, Mahdi coaxed the old generator back to life.The self-taught electrician’s smile beams brighter than the multiple florescent bulbs hanging from his workshop as he explains how he generated about 400 volts which has lit up the refugee camp.“I supply between 150-170 homes with power. My customers live in a radius of 30 minutes’ walk and are in eight estates. Initially, there were four power suppliers but the others have been driven out of business by Kenya Power. I am the only one standing,” Mahdi adds. Respect and recognitionWhen he ventured into power generation, the entire refugee camp was in total darkness. At the moment, his wobbly wooden poles and their dangling transmission lines compete for attention and relevance.
“I have not installed metres. I charge every household Sh50 daily for electricity. This translates to about Sh1,500 per month. I used to supply the local market but it has since been taken over by my competitor,” he says.To generate the power, he uses 40 liters of diesel. A 20-liter container with diesel is retailed at Sh2,200 in Garissa. According to Mahdi, the generator runs night and day and is switched off only once a day, when the sun is at its hottest and the locals go for midday prayers.It took a number of arrests to convince the authorities that Mahdi was a genuine power producer. But even after winning the respect and recognition of the local authorities, he still has to contend with defaulters, some of whom have relocated to Somalia.And about 500 kilometers away from the sweltering heat, the defiant roaring of the giant generators is replaced by the violent waters of Gondo river coursing through the valleys in Njumbi on its journey from Mt Kenya.The noisy cascade of the waters in Kahinduini had for decades robbed Jimna Kaara peace.
“Every time my father came home drunk, he would quarrel everybody at home, challenging us to silence the waters , whose roaring denied him a chance to sleep,” he says.The drunken rants and taunts inspired Kaara to dream of ways to tame the water so that he could solve his main twin problems of water for irrigation and power.“At that time, Kahinduini, just like other rural villages in Njumbi and other parts of Murang’a had no access to power. Ironically, less than 20 metres from our home, there were three rapids separated by a short distance,” he says.In 2005, after a lot of research, Kaara finally got an “expatriate” from Karatina who showed him how to tame and exploit the miniature waterfalls. This is how in February 2005, Kaara mobilised 1,020 villagers who formed Kahinduini Micro Hydro Electricity Project.“At first, my neighbours were skeptical. They thought this was just another scheme of getting their money. However, when we built a tiny power house they believed me,” says Kaara.
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Using a six inch pipe to channel the water from the fall into a turbine, Kaara produced 11KVA. “We connected 30 homes with this power. When they were lit with our own power, all the others happily joined the project,” he says. But six months after Kaara’s revolutionary idea, the project was hit by some headwinds following squabbles arising from allegations over misappropriation of funds.
In just six months, the entire committee led by Joshua Kariuki as chairman, Kaara (secretary ) and his brother David Kaara resigned to give other villagers who were agitating for change a chance to lead.“When we left, there was about Sh1 million in the group’s accounts. Shortly after the new office bearers were conned into withdrawing Sh700,000 to buy a turbine which was never purchased,” he says.The disgruntled members started withholding their financial support, making it impossible for replacement of poles which were being eaten by ants faster than they could replace them.Vandals too had a field day as they descended on the now inactive powerhouse and carted some vital cables.
Today, 70 year old Margaret Njoki is ruing the collapse of the project where she was only paying Sh200 per month a couple of years back.“Since the collapse of Kahinduini Hydro power project, I have been forced to connect to Kenya Power grid. I now spend about Sh500 on power. I have recently connected to another local company which charges a flat rate of Sh200 per month,” Njoki says.Down Gondo River where Kahinduini Hydro power project once stood are two three abandoned power houses.
On the same spot is the graveside of Kiambogo, where some ambitious villagers wanted to harness power but spectacularly failed.But it is on the ruins of Kahinduini and Kiambogo Hydro Power projects that one of the most successful individually run plants, Magiro Power, has sprouted. Magiro (see separate story) has taken over Kiamboigo and Kahinduini projects and is already supplying electricity to 420 households in Mihuti and Njumbi areas.
More moneyJoseph Kanyi, the current chairman of Kahinduini Hydro power, says his committee has handed over the infrastructure to Magiro power. “The members are unwilling to pump more money and the project has been vandalised. We hope Magiro will revive this project and provide affordable electricity to all,” he says.In the neighbouring Kirinyaga County, a 72 year old former police officer, Francis Kiragu Kinyua, is living in captivity after he was forced to give away his power generating project.Kinyua says he had started his project on Wamuthambi River in 1977 after he bought a quarter acre piece of land which had a fall and formed Kirinyaga Micro-Power Project.Later some powerful forces led by the area chief and a former PS raided his project, arrested him and compulsorily bought it at Sh300,000 in 2001. “When I tried to revive this project in 2016, I incurred heavy loses,” he says.Kinyua says he was forced to dismantle his house and the power house where he was in the process of power generation.