Solar Energy Brings Voters to the Polls in Kenya
By Kagondu Njagi | 26 March 2013
As Leseiya Nkontoi queued for hours to vote in Kenya’s tense presidential elections earlier this month, there was one problem she didn’t worry about: How to finish her neglected chores when she got back home late in the evening.
“I have solar lighting in my home,” said the 35-year-old. “This helped me with the kitchen work which I finished late into the night.”
Solar power, increasingly available in this part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, made it considerably easier for many Kenyans to exercise their democratic rights this election season. Clean energy lit polling stations open late into the evening in some places; in others it lit community centres used to provide civil education programmes in the lead-up to the elections or ran biometric voter registration centres.
Established in 2009 through the Lighting Up Kenya project run by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, Oloisho-Oibor Energy Centre in Kajiado County generates solar, wind and diesel power. Today villagers like Nkontoi can light their homes through solar energy free of charge.
But access to cheap, clean power is also helping promote democracy, some experts say.
Prior to the elections, a social hall at the energy centre came alive with cheering as a group of women followed a programme on gender equality shown on a 29-inch television and DVD player, all powered by solar energy.
“We were able to conduct civic education for the community,” explained the centre manager, Simon Parkesian. “This is why there was a high voter turn-up.”
SOLAR LAMPS AT POLLS
At Entasopia, a village on the fringes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Paul Kesiri said he was able to vote for the first time, despite arriving at the polling station late in the evening.
The 41-year-old pastoralist said his village does not have electricity, but solar lanterns supplied by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) lit the voting halls for latecomers like him.
“I plan to buy my own solar lantern to use when guarding my livestock at night from wildlife attacks,” he added.
In North-Eastern Kenya, where the government has had difficulty connecting remote areas to the national power grid, renewable energy is increasingly filling the gap.
At Dertu Primary School, a solar project supported by the French Embassy in Kenya now ensures pupils can study in the early morning and late evening.
On election day, the school served as a polling station and the solar lights ensured minimum disruption to the educational schedule by allowing poll officials to work through the night, according to Sofia Ali, the head teacher.
“Vote counting went on throughout the night,” she says. “Learning resumed the following day, unlike in some schools where pupils had to stay away for a week because of a delay in tallying.”
According to IEBC officials, in places where there is no electricity, solar energy was used to power biometric voter registration kits, while some 28,000 solar lanterns were supplied to polling places.
A FEW SNAGS
However, a few Kenyans blamed the technology for voting delays, especially in instances where the gadgets malfunctioned.
“I think the government should still install electricity in marginalised areas because during the cold season there is not enough sun to generate energy,” complained Abdi Raman, a youth from Garissa County.
The government’s climate change secretariat estimates that 100,000 home solar energy systems have been installed in Kenyan homes, a number likely to grow as renewable energy continues to gain acceptance.
According to Charles Mutai, the secretariat’s green economy coordinator, the most common system consists of 12-14 watt photovoltaic panels. It can power lights, a transistor radio or charge a mobile phone.
But the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of civil society organisations, says the government should do more to supply rural Kenyans with renewable energy as demand for the technology continues to rise.
“Investing in renewable energy should be a door to door campaign if Kenya is to make headways in adapting to climate change,” said Mithika Mwenda, the coalition’s coordinator.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.