A year after launch, Last Mile power project finally begins to light up rural Kenya

Patrick Kimathi, a resident of Chuka town, started his search for power in March 2013.

Kenya Power advised him to find neighbours who are also interested in getting electricity connected to their homes so they can make the application together.

“We were urged to form a group in 2013 by the lighting company to benefit from the rural electrification programme,” Mr Kimathi said.

He ended up with a group of five and they deposited Sh32,480 as advised. And then a long wait started.

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For 36 months, Kimathi has been waiting in vain for his turn to get precious electricity connection.

“We have been following up on the matter at Kenya Power’s Chuka branch, but every time I go there, I am given a list of excuses. At some point, we were asked to follow up on the issue with the regional offices in Embu and Nyeri, but it has all been in vain,” Kimathi said.

Like millions of other Kenyans living in darkness, Kimathi, who rattles off his reference number from memory, was relieved to hear the Government was reducing the cost of connections to just Sh15,000 under the Last Mile Connectivity Project.

But no one told him it would take a while to benefit.

The project was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta in May 2015.

Rare visitor

In another part of the country, in Bungoma County, Brian Walela one morning received a rare kind of visitor.

Mr Walela has a high voltage line passing over his house, but has never had the privilege of switching on lights in his own home.

Two men, who identified themselves as Kenya Power agents, visited him with what he describes as the best news he has ever received from the utility company.

He was informed that he did not need to have money upfront to get connected to the national grid. He also did he need to fill an application form as he was within 600 metres of a transformer.

But there was a catch. To be assured of a connection, he was to part with a small ‘facilitation fee’.

“They said there were so many people competing for the same chance, and it was only proper that I give a small token of appreciation,” Mr Walela said.

He paid up. The two men have yet to return, and it is nearly impossible to tell if these two men were genuine Kenya Power employees or cons taking advantage of information gaps in the Last Mile project.

Still, it remains one of the best initiatives to be implemented in the energy sector, especially for people like Kimathi and Walela, who represent the millions of Kenyans still waiting for electricity connections.

Kenya Power has been banking on the project to meet its target to connect over one million new customers every year in an effort to achieve the 70 per cent connectivity milestone by 2017.

As it is, electricity access has risen to 60 per cent from 27 per cent in the 2012-13 financial year.

The Last Mile project is starting out with a fraction of existing transformers, which means those not on the list of early beneficiaries will have to wait much longer to, quite literally, see the light.

One of the project’s biggest selling points is that consumers have the option of paying the connection fee upfront or in instalments.

“Potential customers will ... be allowed to pay the connection fee alongside their monthly bills for a period of two years,” Kenya Power Managing Director and CEO Ben Chumo said at the project’s launch.

Information gap

This removes one of the biggest hurdles in the acceleration of rural electrification: cost. The previous Sh35,000 connection fee was seen as too steep.

The project has won rare accolades and the support of many international financiers. So far, it has received funding and commitments worth Sh61.5 billion, according to Kenya Power.

It also promises to be a major election campaign issue when the current Government goes back to the electorate with its scorecard.

But unscrupulous individuals are exploiting information gaps to solicit for bribes “to speed up the process”, while exposing the project to challenges of favouritism.

It has also had a painfully slow start due to the number of agencies and interests involved.

Over a year since the project was launched, only 10,000 homes have been connected, as bureaucracy, politics and stringent lending terms slow down implementation.

The start date has also been a moving target.

It was a major talking point for the President at public rallies long before any action actually started on the ground.

After it was launched last year, a second launch for the first phase was done in April this year.

The project has been divided into three phases and is expected to take power to about 1.2 million households.

The first phase is expected to be completed by June next year, months before the next elections.

Politicians were the first to dig in after they smelt the project’s potential to be a major election driver. This saw them demand to be fully involved in the process at the grassroots.

To begin with, the transformers targeted in each constituency have been selected using Constituency Development Fund (CDF) allocation criteria.

Selection Criteria

Kenya Power was asked to write to all MPs, indicating the transformers it would work on.

“The 5,320 transformers targeted in the first phase have been selected from all 290 constituencies in the 47 counties based on the Government’s policy that aims to address equity in terms of reticulation and access. Based on this policy, counties with low penetration will benefit the most,” the power distributor said.

The selection criteria is also based on data from Kenya Power regarding the potential to connect households within 600 metres of existing distribution transformers.

Counties with fewer households with access to electricity will have their transformers maximised to benefit more homes. Transformers with the lowest connection cost per household will also be given priority. This will mostly be dictated by population density and the location of an existing electricity network.

But most households will have to wait until next year to get their connections, given the logistical, procurement and political challenges the project has to surmount.

“Approximately 10,000 households have been connected so far under the Government’s Sh1.1 billion funding. Donor-funded connections will kick in this financial year,” the firm said in an email interview with Business Beat.

But Kenya Power has been connecting, on average, about 2,150 households a day — it has grown its customer base from 2.3 million to 4.9 million between March 2013 and May 2016, an increase of 116 per cent. Therefore, it could have hit 10,000 new connections fast if the project were at full capacity.

Still, the firm maintains the project is on course, with contractors for the first phase are on the ground. This phase is being financed by the Government and the African Development Bank (AfDB) at a cost of Sh13.5 billion and targets 314,000 households.

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