Kenya’s national electrification campaign is taking less than half the time it took America

Getting on the grid.
Getting on the grid.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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In the 1930s, the US embarked on a campaign to connect rural parts of the country to electricity. It took more than two decades before 95% of all farms were electrified. Kenya is working on doing that in just seven years.

Kenya added 1.3 million households to its electricity grid last year, raising the percentage of connected Kenyans to 55%, from just 27% in 2013, when the country’s electrification campaign began in earnest. In another four years, Kenya plans to achieve ”universal access” where 95% of homes will have access to electricity.

Development experts see access to electricity as important for improving everything from education and agricultural productivity to employment. Across the African continent, an estimated 600 million people, or 70% of the population, do not have access to electricity. Kenya would be among the first African countries to achieve universal access to electricity (after Algeria, Mauritius, and the Seychelles.)

If Kenya reaches universal access by 2020, it will have achieved in seven years a level of electrification that took the US a total of 33 years to reach, according to Todd Moss from the Center for Global Development. Electrification rates in Kenya are among the fastest in the region. It took Kenya about three years to get more than half of its population connected to the grid, a process that took the US eight years even at the height of its electrification campaign. (Granted, the US is about 16 times bigger than Kenya in terms of area.)

Kenya will first have to reach its goal of 6.5 million connected households by 2017. As of last month, 5.7 million households had been connected.

Kenya’s electrification campaign is notable in other ways. Much of Kenya’s energy comes from non-fossil fuel sources—more than 60% of installed capacity comes from hydro and geothermal power. Kenya opened the world’s largest geothermal plant last year at the Olkaria Geothermal field in southwestern Kenya where another plant is being built and expected to come online in two years. Kenya is also building Africa’s biggest wind energy farm to generate a fifth of its power.

Still, Kenya’s electricity grid is not without problems. Blackouts are so common that lawmakers considered a bill to require KPLC, to compensate customers if a shortage lasts for more than three hours. During a parliamentary debate last year on the bill the power went out. This week, much of Nairobi, Mount Kenya, and the coast, lost power because of a  technical fault. A monkey tripped a transformer last year, causing a nationwide power outage.

In some areas of the country, simply connecting households is not enough. KPLC’s figures only measure physical connections to the grid, not actual consumption, notes Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

A recently published study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Innovations for Poverty Action in Kenya found that in western Kenya, electrification rates remained low, at 5% for rural households and 22% for rural businesses, even in areas of good grid coverage. The study found that 84% of unconnected households were within 200 meters of a connection point.

Unconnected households are marked by green circles. Existing connection points are marked with yellow circles, squares, and triangles.
Unconnected households are marked by green circles. Existing connection points are marked with yellow circles, squares, and triangles.
Image: Development Engineering/"Electrification for “Under Grid” households in Rural Kenya"

“[Kenya] appears on track, but progress on these types of things are never linear. The closer you get to 100%, the harder it gets, hence, the ‘last mile,'” says Moss.