In a small timber house hidden in the midst of coffee bushes in Kagati village, Nyeri County, Isaac Nderitu sits with his legs crossed.
An open door and window let in streams of sunlight that is the only illumination in the partially dark room.
Like most of his neighbours, Nderitu’s house is not connected to electricity because it is too far away from the power transformer.
The 52-year-old father of four has lived in Kagati, Mathira Constituency, all his life.
He and his neighbours had learned to live a simple life without electricity. Then in June 2016, former Governor Nderitu Gachagua called a meeting in the village and announced a solar farm project that would become one of the largest clean energy developments in East Africa, and an end to the county’s energy poverty.
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“We were excited. I was one of those who went to the meeting. The leaders said it was good. We would have gotten jobs and our schools and churches would have gotten electricity and I wouldn’t have to use paraffin lamps anymore,” Nderitu recalls.
The panels would be erected in a 134-acre piece of idle land belonging to the county government. For a county whose annual budget is Sh7.4 billion, announcing a Sh6 billion project was ambitious by any standard.
After the announcement, some residents were enthusiastic about it. Others, not so much.
Those who backed the plan looked at it beyond the electricity generation to the infrastructure and employment opportunities that a project of such magnitude would present.
Others, especially local leaders, were against awarding the land rights to a private company. The land would be leased to investors for 20 years before the project is reverted back to the community.
James Kabarita, a coffee farmer from the village with unfulfilled aspirations of becoming an MCA, is one of those who opposed the project.
“The land is a public utility and the county government did not sit down with the residents and ask them their views. Yet that is the land where we graze our livestock or if we need to build a church or a school, so people were not excited,” says Kabarita.
Despite the opposition, the county went ahead with the project. But years later the plan floundered.
What could have failed? On paper, it was the perfect solution for the county’s power needs.
“When this project is complete we are going to add 40 Megawatts to the national grid,” the late Gachagua said then.
Its output would have been significant enough to power the entire town.
The project would also have been a reprieve to coffee farmers such as Nderitu or tea farmers affiliated to the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), which has been working to cut down the rising energy costs.
Kenya relies heavily on electricity produced from hydro and fossil fuels, but climate change has affected energy generation.
In 2016/17 solar made up a negligible 0.02 per cent of the energy purchased by the power utility company.
However, since then, the Kenyan government is moving away from fossil fuel energy and investing heavily in renewable energy projects such as solar and wind.
It was only in late 2019 that the country launched the Chinese built 50MW Garissa solar plant, which cost Sh13.5 billion. The Ministry of Energy is also encouraging independent power producers in wind and solar to improve the country’s power mix.
But the collapse of the Kiamariga solar project under unclear circumstances raises critical questions of Kenya’s renewable energy aspirations.
The project had been planned to the last detail, and a developer had been identified.
Kumar & Associates, a company based in Nairobi, won the bid to develop the power farm in 2014. Two years later they secured the land rights for the project.
The company then engaged Green Giraffe, a Dutch advisory firm focused on the renewable energy sector, to run a feasibility study.
There are crucial steps a developer has to take before they undertake an energy project in Kenya.
In this case, Kumar & Associates had to convince Kenya Power, the company in charge of power distribution and retailing, that the project was viable and secure a grid connection agreement.
It would then have to acquire a generation licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), the independent regulator that licenses energy projects, and eventually a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with Kenya Power.
However, according to Green Giraffe, everything stopped after Kenya Power denied the project a PPA.
Soon after the company won the bid to set up the plant, Kumar registered Kiamariga Solar Energy Limited, the special purpose vehicle for the solar project.
Part of the conditions for a successful bid in putting up the solar farm was that the company should have experience of setting up more than 100MW of power.
Furthermore, the conditions required that the company’s employees should have a wide solar development and financing experience for more than 10 years and wide project management and implementation experience in at least three countries.
The involvement of the company was part of the reason the Nyeri County Assembly was opposed to the project.
Some of the companies that Kumar beat to the tender are Norfund Scatec Solar, Soventix from Wesel in Germany, Naanovo Energy from UK, Nextgen Solar, Envirotech Consultancy Africa Limited.
The MCAs questioned how an accounting firm won a bid to develop a multi-billion-shilling solar energy farm.
“Our understanding as the assembly was that the project would be a conduit to siphon public funds. The deal was not transparent, it was brought to the county assembly and we did not have any documents to support it.”
A group of Nyeri residents opposed to the use of the land for the solar project wrote to the National Land Commission in protest.
But the county government says it is mulling over reviving the project.