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How solar powers has helped sleepy town to claim Mara’s billions

By Kennedy Kipruto | Aug 12th 2018 | 4 min read
By Kennedy Kipruto | August 12th 2018
Tourists interact with members of Entasikira traditional Manyatta near Talek which borders Maasai Mara Game Reserve. [Charles Ngeno, Standard]

For a township that lies right at the edge of a world famous wildlife park, Talek laid back for eons as her peers blossomed on tourism proceeds.

This dusty township by the north-eastern edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve is the perfect example of how solar energy can transform the fortunes of a remote region.

Until 2015, Talek was characterised by dusty footpaths and isolated buildings with rusty iron sheets. To charge their mobile phones, residents relied on their few neighbours who had solar panels in their houses or shop owners who owned generators. For other needs that required stable electricity like welding, they had to travel to tens of kilometres to centres connected to the national grid. That centre was Maji Moto, which is 70km from Talek.

But in just three years, Talek is a vibrant and fast growing town, reaping the benefits of sharing a boundary with the Mara, which draws tens of thousands of tourists from around the world every year between the months of July and September to witness the wonder that is the wildebeest migration.

Modern stone buildings dot its landscape. The Kenya Commercial Bank has opened a branch. Two petrol stations have come up to rival the only one that stood here in 2015, serving the hundreds of tour vans that access the Mara through the Talek gate.

Carpenter workshops, hardwares, welders, hair salons, pharmacies, car garages and M-Pesa outlets have been opened to serve the growing centre.   

More importantly, numerous small hotels have sprang up to take advantage of the tourists who cannot afford the luxuries of the five-star hotels, camps and lodges inside the vast game reserve but want to savour the magical wild Mara has to offer.  

The story of Talek's phenomenal growth can be told through Lucy Mwangi's business. Her hardware shop has given birth to another, and she has the Talek mini-grid to thank.
"I have grown from operating in a corridor to running two hardware shops. Besides building materials, I now sell electricals to residents," she says.  

The fortunes of this township changed when it was selected for a Sh30 million pro-solar mini-grid pilot project funded by the German government through its development agency GIZ.

GIZ says it chose Talek because of its remote location. Connecting it to the national grid would require passing the transmission lines through the game reserve.

Commissioned in 2015, the solar mini-grid consists of 150 panels that produces 40 kilowatts of electricity. During the day, power generated from the solar is used to charge batteries that supply electricity to the township at night. The plant also has a standby diesel generator that adds 10kilowatts to meet the increasing demand.

The project consists of a three-km low distribution network that covers a radius of 2km around Talek from the plant, serving 215 households.

It was handed over to the Narok County Government in 2016, which in turn contracted Power Gen, a Nairobi based company that specializes in renewable energy, to run it.  Since the plant's commissioning, the township has witnessed a 40 per cent growth in population, says Narok County CEC in charge of Health Vivian Mpetti, who was in charge of the Energy docket when the project was launched.

The township's population stands at 2,000, but rises to 4,000 during the tourism peak season, according to the county government.

So effective has the mini-grid been that its demand has exceeded supply. Due to this, the town experiences a 30-minute black out at around 8pm every day. PowerGen's George Ndubi says this is due to a delay in transition between the solar and the batteries.

"Electricity has enabled me to operate my pharmacy longer, from 8am to 9pm. It also allows me to serve residents in dire need of medication at night," says Saitoti Olingetti, who runs a pharmacy. In his shop, Saitoti also sells cold soda and runs a phone charging business. Phone charging here, he says, is a booming business.

Mohamed Bashir, who runs Talek's first petrol station, says he can now sell fuel in the middle of the night without waking up his neighbours with the noise of a generator. Bashir wants the county government to increase the capacity of the mini-grid.

To access the power, PowerGen developed a pre-paid system similar to that used by Kenya Power. Residents and business vendors buy their tokens from a vendor at the KCB bank who has access to the PowerGen metre system. Low consumers pay Sh75 for a unit of the electricity. Those that use more than 50 units per month pay Sh90 for a unit.

The Sh28 million Talek community solar hybrid mini-grid project that was financed by the German Cooperation, Welthungerhilfe and GIZ. [Charles Ngeno, Standard]

To meet the growing demand and owing to the success of the mini-grid, the Narok County Government has approved plans to increase the capacity of the Talek plant and has invited bids from contractors.

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