Why we should replace coal mining with agribusiness

While attending the just ended and most successful Pakistan-Africa Trade Development Conference in Nairobi, I noted how Pakistani top investors were quite keen to know if Kenya’s energy sector was reliable. Although our installed electricity generating capacity of 2,370 MW enhances our energy reliability, there is still a lot of room for improvement and a lot is being done.

Energy runs industry. Without it, we will not have the optimal capacity to attract investors, build additional industries that will create more jobs and strengthen our economy. Against this backdrop, coal seems to make a lot of sense, especially because it has powered energy generation in the developed world.

Nine coal power plants in Europe each generate more energy than the entire Kenya. Belchatow Power Plant in Poland has a capacity of 4928 MW, which is more than double Kenya’s capacity. How then can Kenya, compete with countries like Poland? The question should however, be, how can Kenya grow its economy without necessarily relying on dirty energy like coal?

Mui Basin in Kitui County looks like any other rural setup but beneath this simple terrain is vast deposits of coal that are estimated to be worth Sh3.4 trillion. Although Fenxi Industry Mining Company from China was awarded a licence to mine this coal, mining machineries are yet to start drilling. 

In May 2019, Mui Basin residents petitioned Parliament to halt the project since it would have adverse effects on their health and the environment. Consequently, the 1,000MW of electricity that would have been generated by a subsequent coal plant in the area remains a pipe dream. But this may not be such a bad thing.

More than one hundred coal plants were closed down in China, while the US shut down more than five hundred. In Europe, Belgium has already phased out coal completely. As an avowed environmentalist, I absolutely appreciate that coal is dirty energy that ruins the health of both the planet and people.

But we cannot just walk away from the Sh3.4 trillion worth of resource because the people of Kitui need this money. The answer lies in finding an alternative project that will also be worth trillions in the long run. Unlike coal, this project shouldn’t sacrifice human and environmental health on the altar of economic growth. In the same vein, the alternative project shouldn’t also make billions for a singular mammoth corporate and few greedy individuals while leaving thousands impoverished.

Bishop who fought for Kenyans  

Agribusiness meets all the conditions of the aforementioned alternative project and even qualifies to be funded by the global Green funds. I’m not talking about widespread smallholder farming where farmers plant crops that they have been planting for decades, and then hope for the best. Rather, I am talking about large scale, smart and sustainable agribusiness.

For such agribusiness to succeed, sufficient investment of cash and expertise must be pumped into it. During the 2018 Africa Investment Forum, agribusiness leaders revealed that Africa needs to invest Sh4.5 trillion into agribusiness annually. This will result in returns of Sh100 trillion by 2030. Presently, only one sixth of the Sh4.5 trillion is injected into agribusiness. It is therefore no wonder that Africa continues to import food that it can easily be producing.

As we walk away from the Sh3.4 trillion Kitui coal, let us walk straight into the arms of the Sh100 trillion agribusiness sector. Although this figure applies to the entire Africa, it is indicative of the trillions that Kenya can reap from a revamped agribusiness sector. We should start by identifying the agribusiness products that Kenya imports, yet it can produce here. The fact that those products are imported signifies that there is already a ready local market. In the first half of 2018, Kenya spent Sh100 billion to import foodstuff like maize, rice, sugar and wheat among many others. Some of the imported crops can easily grow in Kitui and even Lamu where livelihoods can be supported sustainably.

Interestingly, the rain that has been causing havoc elsewhere has been a massive blessing in Kitui and the lower eastern as a whole. Thanks to these rains, farmers there have reaped bumper harvests unlike any in their lifetime.

This proves that with sufficient investment, these farmers can anchor a large-scale agribusiness project that would eventually earn them the decent, healthy livelihoods that coal can never give them. We only have to think green and act green for posterity!

The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke

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