Kenya got hit by a third countrywide power outage in four years

The Olkaria II Geothermal power plant in Kenya.
The Olkaria II Geothermal power plant in Kenya.
Image: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Kenya on Jan 11. suffered its third countrywide power outage in four years, with the entire country plunged into a blackout for almost four hours after a transmission line broke.

The disruption was caused by the collapse of towers along a high-voltage transmission line, the country’s electricity distributor, Kenya Power, said. It did not say why the towers fell.

The outage caused huge financial losses and uneven disruption to work for people, with those working from homewhere there are typically no generators—being most affected.  For those in commercial buildings, which usually have backup power, it was mostly business as usual.

Power was restored in all parts of the country except three locations in about four hours.

Blackouts are a common occurrence in Kenya and other African countries, crippling economies and leaving many people frustrated while disproportionately affecting the poor more than the rich. In Kenya, causes include bad weather, equipment failure, supply shortfalls, aging infrastructure, and commonly, regular service interruptions for maintenance and repair work.

Despite these challenges, Kenya is a leader in renewable energy, with 92.3% of electricity generated locally in 2020 being from renewable sources (pdf)—hydro, thermal and wind power. This is three times the amount that renewables contributed to electricity generation globally.

Elsewhere, in South Africa, people experience frequent power cuts that are conducted by the public utility Eskom to prevent a collapse of the national electricity grid. This is known as load-shedding. And in Nigeria, businesses and individuals spend almost $12 billion a year (pdf) fueling generators due to unreliable electricity supply. The country’s commercial and industrial sectors have become heavily reliant on self-generated power, using petrol and diesel generators. This accounts for nearly half of all electricity consumed.

The service interruptions in Kenya are usually scheduled and publicized in newspapers and on social media in advance, so the outage on Jan. 11 caught Kenyans by surprise.

Kenya Power, which has a monopoly in power distribution in Kenya, had 8.3 million accounts as at June 2021. Most people in the country rely on it to power their homes and businesses and outages lead to loss of income. Due to frequent blackouts, some businesses and premises, particularly commercial buildings that can afford it, have generators on standby. Others, including richer homes, have solar systems installed.

At the moment, the company only compensates for injuries and damaged equipment. There have been attempts to make it compensate people for financial losses, equipment damage, physical injuries and death caused by power outages.

With many working from home and in other places without backup power such as solar systems, Kenyans vented their anger at Kenya Power over the blackout. Some were forced to leave their homes to work in coffee shops and other restaurants.

Looking to find out about the power outage, Kenyans mistakenly followed Twitter accounts belonging to journalists at a Louisiana TV station called KPLC that shares a name with the initials of Kenya Power (the power distributor’s full name is Kenya Power and Lighting Company). Weatherman Ben Terry and anchor Jillian Corder were surprised to find they’d gained many followers from Kenya.

The last countrywide power outage in Kenya happened in May 2020, when part of a high-voltage power line broke.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox.