Businesses suffer huge losses as country plunges into darkness

An aerial view of Nairobi's CBD during the second day of national power outage. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

A young father on Saturday narrated how his newborn boy who had been at an incubator in one of the hospitals in Central Kenya died following the nationwide nightlong electricity outage experienced Friday night and early Saturday. 

He said on social media the hospital staff explained to him that due to the blackout, the oxygen supply to the incubator had been cut. Due to constrained resources, the hospital could not run backup generators for more than a few hours. He said more than three infants died at the hospital.

This represents one of the stories of pain, tears, and despair as the country was plunged into unprecedented darkness for more than half a day. Tens of thousands of small businesses, homes, and manufacturers yesterday narrated how they suffered massive losses as businesses shut, and refrigerators went off due to the national power outage.

The power blackout, the latest of many – lasting more than 12 hours for some areas – led to huge losses as businesses were disrupted.

The national power utility company, Kenya Power said the outage resulted from a "system disturbance" at around 9 pm. 

Reports indicate that the Lake Turkana Wind Power Plant located in Marsabit County experienced technical hitches, shutting down and taking down the country’s power distribution system and some power plants.

Sources said following the breakdown at the wind farm, the system shut itself down due to inbuilt measures to protect itself. 

"At 2145hrs (on Friday), we experienced a system disturbance leading to loss of bulk power supply to various parts of the country. We are working in collaboration with teams from all involved sector partners to facilitate speedy restoration of power supply in the shortest time possible," said Kenya Power in a statement.

It later said that the outage was caused by a fault in one of the power generating plants. While Kenya Power did not name the plant that was the source of the problems, industry sources said the faulty plant was the Lake Turkana Wind Power plant.

As of mid-day yesterday, Kenya Power said it had restored power in most parts of the country, adding it was “working to restore the remaining areas” and that it would “once the remaining generating plants are back”.

The result was many residential and businesses that were plunged into darkness, causing huge losses and in some instances, death at hospitals.

Small businesses that reported losses included barbershops and salons. Distraught business owners said they resorted to expensive diesel-powered generators to guard against mounting losses. Restaurants and entertainment spots said that most of their stored food went bad after their refrigerators went off.

"I lost most of the food stored ahead of a big party I was hosting," said a distraught Kiambu hotel manager John Mugo.

Hard hit however was the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) where airplanes could not take off or land for hours. Questions arose as to how the facility – an aviation hub for the region – did not have power backup.

Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomenre regretted the incident, noting that “there was no excuse worth reporting and there is no reason why our airport is in darkness” and later said, “This situation will not happen again.”

Kenya Power said it had restored electricity at the airport yesterday at around 3 am.

It later emerged that the Kenya Airports Authority Managing Director Alex Gitari had been fired following the blackout. Murkomen appointed Henry Ogoyo as acting managing director.

Big businesses, particularly manufacturers, had to switch on their diesel generators to continue with their production processes and salvage raw materials that could easily go to waste when the production processes are halted midway.

Rajan Shah, the chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) also explained the damage that unplanned electricity outages do to plant equipment.

“The power outage last night is very concerning. Under no circumstances should we be in such a situation, even from a country's security point of view,” he said.

“For manufacturers, outages are always disruptive, especially when they are unplanned. Whilst many of our manufacturers have alternative backup power through generators, it is very expensive to run generators on diesel. This would increase production costs.”

“Additionally, unplanned outages also lead to production losses for certain industries where the equipment stopping midstream would lead to incomplete production and hence product losses. Outages lead to equipment failures especially when many of the latest equipment have higher components of electronics which are susceptible to power fluctuations. In the end, besides the lower cost of power, predictability, and stability of power source is very critical for manufacturers.”

National Assembly’s Committee on Energy has summoned Energy Cabinet Secretary Davis Chirchir and Kenya Power's CEO Joseph Siror to explain the circumstances that led to the blackout.

The Vincent Musyoka chaired committee said that it was embarrassing for the country to be plunged into such an outage and now wants the CS and the CEO to explain themselves on Thursday.

An aerial view of Nairobi's CBD during the second day of national power outage. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The latest power outage is likely to shine a fresh spotlight on the country's power distribution monopoly.

The country was earlier in March this year plunged into a similar blackout, which was linked to a fault on one of the key transmission lines, according to Kenya Power.

Kenya Power is Kenya’s sole electricity distributor and the bulk of its power comes from Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), which is the main producer.

Frequent blackouts due to supply shortfalls and aging infrastructure have forced most businesses and wealthy customers to have standby generators as well as installation of solar power plants.

Kenya Power, which is struggling with losses and mounting debt, has been under pressure from manufacturers to supply reliable and affordable power to businesses.

The government previously rejected proposed laws that require Kenya Power to compensate businesses whose power is cut off for more than three hours within a day.

Business leaders say incessant blackouts are limiting economic growth.  

Manufacturers, commercial building owners, warehouses, hospitality establishments like hotels, supermarkets, hospitals, educational institutions, farmers, and other small businesses like salons and barber shops need constant electricity supply and an extended outage usually translates into losses and additional expenses from using generators.

Last month, another blackout was witnessed across the whole country.

At the time, Kenya Power linked the eight-hour power outage to planned routine network maintenance.

In December 2021, the country was again plunged into darkness for several hours. This was after two high-voltage transmission lines - one at Embakasi connecting the capital Nairobi to hydro plants at the Seven Forks cascade and another (Loiyangalini-Suswa line) connecting LTWP to the grid at Suswa collapsed.

Authorities opened an investigation, saying some power sector executives had neglected their duties, leading to the collapse of the towers. Three senior managers were subsequently charged with sabotage and negligence over the outage.

Earlier in May 2020, there was a similar nationwide outage after a section of a high-voltage line that transmits power to Nairobi from the Olkaria geothermal power plants in Naivasha broke.

Experts say Kenya Power needs to spend billions of shillings to upgrade and expand its aging network in the coming years and revamp the dilapidated transmission network to keep up with growing demand.

By James Wanzala 28 mins ago
Malonza highlights ministry achievements after Somalia joined EAC bloc
By Willis Oketch 44 mins ago
KPA charts ambitious course, sees profits hitting Sh20b in five years
Sarrai to run Mumias Sugar Company as court ends lease war
By Abdi Dubat 4 hrs ago
EAC pillars in sync with Kenya's bottom-up economic agenda