Many an African tale begin with an African proverb and to subscribe to that cliché, so will this. There is a Bantu proverb that loosely translates to, ‘a goat that is gifted does not have its teeth inspected.
The Lamu Coal Mine project will go down in Kenya’s history as one of the most controversial energy projects to have been introduced in the country by the Jubilee administration, but with little limelight outside energy circles and the environs of Lamu County.
Like the proverbial goat, the project was presented without blemish to the Kenyan people and residents of Lamu, promising increased electricity access and, the icing on the cake, jobs.
Were its teeth to be inspected, it would reveal the significant environmental risks and undeniable negative impact that not even the promise of jobs can overshadow.
The popular and widely-acceptable stance has been that fossil fuels are bad and renewable energy is the way to go. Nonetheless, to truly understand the intricacies of a thing, I find it crucial to understand its history and the purpose that it seeks to serve.
To follow in the footsteps of great writers before me while avoiding rehashing the painful history classes we sat through some years back, I will keep this short and sweet.
Whose concept was it?
The use of coal in Africa, like most developments in the continent, was a concept that originated from developed Western nations two or three centuries back. Coal was the fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution and brought to life steam-powered engines and a myriad of other technologies that make life what it is today.
Paradoxically, it also paved the way for the discovery of renewable energy technologies. The industrial revolution also bestowed fame to several brilliant men with seemingly feminine names like Eli Whitney, but I digress.
Unsurprisingly, once more, the Western nations sought to share their vast success in the use of coal with unsuspecting African nations that were still having village dancing parties around a fire every other day.
This, sadly, came in the form of colonization that had many other ill-fated consequences on the same African nations that they had sought to help and develop in the first place.
The cut-and-paste means by which innovation, infrastructural developments and other dubiously noble fetes were transposed to African economies by more developed nations had a great hand in the ill-fate that these African economies face to date. Unbeknown to the Africans was that coal had become increasingly unpopular as a fuel source in Western nations by the 1960s and thereafter, partly due to the environmental degradation.
Lessons from afar
To go into details about the effects of the coal plant in Lamu would be dreadfully repetitive but a worthwhile mention is still important. Respiratory problems, danger to marine life and the destruction of a proclaimed Unesco heritage site and tourist attraction.
However, even more important is to learn from the experience of our neighbours who have trekked the coal-mining path before us. South Africa, whose energy mix is largely dominated by fossil fuels such as coal, oil and nuclear gas, in the World Health Organization’s 2016 report had 15 regions listed in the WHO cities with high air pollution.
At the top of the list of regions in South Africa is Hartebeespoort, a tourist town similar to Lamu that had not been in the list in past years. As a matter of fact, the air pollution experienced in Hartebeespoort is as trickle-down effect of the industrial activities in neighbouring Johannesburg.
Gaborone in Botswana, despite its vast economic success, was reported by WHO as the seventh most polluted city in the world in 2013 whereas 94 per cent of Nigeria’s pollution is exposed to high levels of air pollution as per WHO standards.
Though Kenya’s energy mix has significantly less fossil fuels and Lamu County is smaller than Nigeria or Botswana, the narrative is clear and remains; fossil fuels are bad and renewable energy is the way to go.
To paraphrase Jack Ma’s two cents on the environment during his visit to Kenya: Africa is Africa; copying China’s path to development will be in the least detrimental to the continent’s growth.
Ms Gachui is a junior energy economics researcher and stakeholder in the energy sector