Weed villagers once hated on verge of giving them power and wealth


By Vincent Mabatuk


The ‘Mathenge’ plant is usually in news for the wrong reasons. Not so long ago, residents of Baringo County ranted and raved against the plant and even went to court bringing along a toothless goat as evidence of the devastating effects of the plant.

But now, it could be prudent for them to beat a retreat, for experts have discovered that the Prosopis Juliflora tree, named ‘Mathenge’ after the official who introduced it to the area, is a raw material for electricity production.

MATHENGE EVERYWHERE: The weed is a common feature in Marigat. News of its use in producing electricity in a project that is going to change Baringo County fortunes has excited residents.

 Mzee Richard Leyale. Photos: Boniface Thuku/Standard

Once Tower Power Kenya Limited, the company that plans to produce electricity from the plant, sets up a factory in the region, the people are going to thank God for ‘Mathenge’ and ignore the court ruling that held the Government liable for the loss the weed visited on the community and the environment.

The company intends to set up an 11.5mw biomass gasification electricity plant in Ngambo location in Marigat District.

Tower Power is incorporated in Kenya and its agenda is to ensure Kenyan industries get alternative sources of energy instead of solely depending on hydropower. This means, the high cost of power will be taken care of, enabling companies to make more profit and as a result, employ more people — the benefits are many.

Power generation in this semi-arid region will promote fuel diversity and the use of renewable energy in the country in the future.

The company has authority to develop renewable energy projects and the first phase of this plant kicks off in July next year.

Thereafter, it is planned to expand the capacity by another 20mw at the same site. The total cost for the first phase of the project is Sh1.6 billion.


Reduce poverty


Richard Leyale, chairman of Saruni (which means ‘to rescue’), a local community organisation, says the electricity project will reduce poverty as residents will be paid for selling the Mathenge weed to the factory.

“We have concentrated on the negative side of the plant without thinking how the plant can assist us,” says Leyale, “we now see its value. Although over the years its negative effects outweighed its positive impact.”

With merely 2,000 seedlings planted in 1983, the tree numbers are now more than 20 million, covering approximately 400 square kilometres.

People complain the thorny plant is a threat to farming and livestock keeping. The plant spreads so fast that if left on its own, it could as well cover the whole of Kenya in just 20 years.

Villagers say its poisonous sap is dangerous to livestock as it causes goat’s teeth to rot and fall off. Its poisonous thorns have also maimed many villagers.

The weed was introduced here to curb soil erosion, based on the fact that it is drought-resistant and grows fast.

The plant now occupies half of the community’s land and were it not for their efforts to try and fight the plant, they would have no land by now.

When Mzee Losokol Lebaryo heard of the new use for the plant that has been an irritant hitherto, he was elated.

“The plant is toxic and if it pricks you, the wound takes long before healing,” he says.

The community has already given out 96 hectares of land where the factory and other facilities will be set up.

For residents who have fought insecurity, perennial hunger and water shortage for a long time, the project is a godsend. Rainfall-generated electricity has not been reliable, especially during prolonged dry spells. 


Good tidings


There are more good tidings in the region as the state-owned Geothermal Development Corporation’s exploration of lakes Bogoria, Baringo and Silale as well as Paka to Korosi and Chepchuk is expected to add to the electricity generation. The project, dubbed the Bogoria-Silale Geothermal Complex, has a geothermal potential of 3,000mw and is expected to be the biggest in Africa.

Drilling of the planned 200 wells for steam to generate electricity is expected to begin in January next year.

Residents will reap benefits from the projects that will be done in phases through agriculture and improved roads.

The first benefit to residents is opening up of roads in the harsh terrains to facilitate construction of geothermal plants.

In turn, this will open up the region to trade and other developments. Security will also be improved in the area that has been prone to cattle rustling for decades — with improved roads, it would be easier for police to pursue raiders.

But the most important is giving locals an alternative source of livelihood to livestock that are affected by drought every year.

The corporation’s Martha Mburu says steam condensed from power plants would be channelled to the valleys for irrigation, enabling residents to grow fruits, aloe vera, pineapples, watermelons, sunflower, soya, groundnuts and fodder for livestock.

She says geothermal from the plants would also be used in meat, hide and honey processing.

 Brine — the water component of geothermal after steam is separated from hot water — can be used to make spas and saunas.

She says a similar project has been successful in Iceland where the Blue Lagoon was created and attracts thousands of tourists annually.

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