Kenya is proving an excellent testing ground for initiatives that prove successful elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was the home of the pay-as-you-go model of mobile telecoms services and still has the highest penetration of mobile banking anywhere in the world.
It is now seeking to do the same with electrification. At present, the only countries on the continent with more-or-less universal access to electricity are in North Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. Nairobi is keen to become the first Sub-Saharan state to achieve the same status.
However, residential power prices are very high, at an average of 18.7 US cents/kWh, in comparison with 9 US cents/kWh in neighbouring Tanzania. Rapid electrification comes at a cost, but expensive power is arguably better than no power at all.
Just over half of the estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide without access to electricity live in Africa and progress on electrification in most parts of the continent has been painfully slow. There has been insufficient investment in generating capacity.
Transmission and distribution grids have been too geographically limited. Power utilities have lacked the finance to improve the situation, while most people have had too little money to pay for connections and the electricity that they would consume.
The situation is turning around slowly, partly because of relatively strong economic growth over the past 15 years in most African countries. Growth has been in the range of 5-6%, not the level of the Asian tigers, but sufficient to allow the injection of money into some countries’ power sectors.
More thermal power plants and a few large hydro schemes have been built, particularly with Chinese investment. At the same time, off-grid solar PV has become commercially viable in East Africa, as people gain access to electricity for the first time via a single solar panel, battery and a few light bulbs. The same approach is just starting to take off elsewhere on the continent, including in West Africa.
Whether on-grid or off-grid, the goal is to provide electricity. Electrification rates of about 10% are common and grid connections are unlikely to reach people in many rural parts of the continent for a long time to come.
It is difficult to escape the growing feeling that the solution will come from the bottom up, via solar power, rather than top down from a transmission line.