Power to the community

A community power centre brings business and ICTs to farmers in Kenya

Paul Njuguna

Using hydro and solar energy, a village in Kenya now boasts the first hybrid zero emission power supply in the country. The community power centre provides a stable electricity supply and brings internet and mobile phone access to local farmers.

The village of Kibae is located 150 km north of Nairobi, on the slopes of Mount Kenya. The fertile land here allows the small-scale farmers in the area to grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables, mostly bananas, plus tea and coffee. But, like most people in rural Kenya, those living around Kibae have no access to electricity from the main grid (the Kenyan government estimates that 63% of the rural population does not have access to the grid).

In 2004, the community decided to use another of its local natural resources, a 12 metre high waterfall, to produce electricity. They constructed a building to house the generator next to a nearby stream, and a weir to control the flow of water, and then approached the Ministry of Energy to see if they could supply a hydro turbine unit. The Ministry contacted the local offices of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and, together with the community, they came up with a plan to solve Kibae’s energy problem.

UNIDO, a UN agency that specializes in developing production processes that do not harm the environment or place a burden on limited energy resources, had recently started work on a community power centre (CPC) project. The centres, also known as energy kiosks, supply electricity from renewable sources ensuring that they emit no, or very little, gases that could harm the environment. It is also important that the CPC provides a variety of income-generating opportunities for the community.

In many rural areas of Kenya the population density is low and communities are widely scattered, making it uneconomical for energy companies to extend the electricity grid to supply these areas. UNIDO’s idea is that community power centres – essentially decentralized (off-grid) facilities – could make use of technologies that generate electricity from renewable resources, and play an important role in helping rural community members to develop small businesses. A reliable source of power, for example, means that farmers can process their agricultural produce, and thus have a wider range of goods to sell on local markets. With the extra income, producers can invest in other local services, such as the mobile phone and internet facilities provided by other community members, giving a much-needed boost to the local economy.

The type of energy sources used and the services the centre delivers depends on a number of factors, including the location, the number of people in the area, the types of services required, and the energy demands of the community. But a typical CPC serves 400 households, or about 2000 people, and earns its money from the sale of energy and the services it can offer as a result of having a steady supply of electricity.

The types of activities a CPC supports, and can earn money from, include providing ICT services such as computer training, internet access and telephone kiosks, while another part of the centre might offer light industrial processing such as flour milling, metal welding, carpentry workshops, hair clipping, beauty salons and cold storage facilities. As the centre becomes more established within the community it can also become a local trading centre offering mobile banking and market information services for farmers and buyers.

Combining energy

In Kibae, the new community power centre has two sources of energy. Water from the nearby stream and its waterfall drives two small hydro turbines to produce 2 kilowatts of energy, and a solar unit generates 500 watts, giving a total of 2.5 kW of electricity for the community. Both systems charge a bank of batteries from where the supply is converted from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) by an inverter device. The inverter then provides a stable 240 volts of electricity on which most electrical equipment can operate.

All of the energy-generating equipment is housed in a single building, known as the power house. From there it goes to two main points in the village, the industrial centre and the community centre. Small businesses in the industrial centre use the electricity to mill maize, to heat incubators in a small poultry hatchery, to produce juice from locally grown fruit, and even to make liquid soap. These products provide extra income for farmers and other community members, who are then able to pay for the electricity from their profits.

In the first month alone, the proceeds from the sale of juice, flour and soap produced in the centre amounted to more than KSh 11,000 (US$ 140), well beyond initial expectations and significantly above the projected amount needed to maintain investment in the electricity supply system.

The third part of the project, the community centre, also provides opportunities for local entrepreneurs to start up their own businesses. The centre in Kibae serves many households that are not connected directly to the electricity grid, and use car batteries to run small household appliances. There are also approximately 200 mobile phones in use in the community. All of these batteries have to be charged regularly, so some local entrepreneurs are renting space in the centre and offering recharging services. The businesses pay only for the electricity they use based on readings taken from meters at each business premises.

It costs KSh 10 (US$ 0.13) to recharge a mobile phone, and since most phones need recharging twice a week, the businesses take in around KSh 16,000 (US$ 200) per month. Other community members have invested in computers and are providing training courses and internet services. Farmers can use the centre to access market information and to search for methods to improve crop production. The centre also has a satellite TV and DVD viewing facility where people can pay to watch popular sports events, or organizations can hire to show information videos.

Light matters

Another major income generator, and an important objective of the UNIDO project, is the supply of alternative light sources. At the moment, most people in Kibae use kerosene lamps for lighting. A typical household has three kerosene lamps – one for the kitchen, one for the sitting room and the other for the room where the children study. An average family will use the lamps for fours hours each evening, burning approximately half a litre of kerosene per day. This adds up to more than KSh 1200 (US$ 15) per month, not including the initial cost of the lamp or replacement wicks. But the lamps are also a fire hazard and the fumes from burning kerosene lead to air pollution in the home, and have been linked with a variety of respiratory and ophthalmic problems.

LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, on the other hand, remove the pollution and fire risks, and provide better quality, steady light rather than the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. There is also no need to keep on buying kerosene as the LED lamps operate on a battery, but this has to be recharged every week or so, if used every evening. It costs KSh 20 (US$ 0.25) for a single charge, which amounts to KSh 240 (US$ 3) per month for a family with three lamps. This is significantly less than the amount they paid for kerosene each month. For a whole year, the cost compared to what they paid for kerosene lamps is as follows:

Table: Comparison of overall costs of kerosene lamps and LED lamps. All amounts in KSh

Lamp Cost of purchase Cost of consumables (wick or battery) per year Cost of fuel or recharge per year Total cost
Rechargeable LED (3 lamps) 4,500 1080 2,880 7,860
Kerosene hurricane lamp (3 lamps) 1500 240 14,400 16,140
Kerosene tin lamp (3 lamps) 150 200 18,720 19,070

Although the LED lamps work out cheaper, resulting in a saving of more than KSh 11,000 (US$ 140) per year, the initial purchase price of KSh 4500 (US$ 57.50) is often beyond the means of many families. Instead, local businesses offer the lamps at KSh 500 (US$ 6.40) each and give families the chance to pay the rest in instalments of KSh 300 (US$ 3.80) per lamp over a period of eight months. During this time the household saves enough on kerosene to pay the monthly instalments. The local primary school is also distributing LED lamps to children to take home for a week so that their families can try them out first.

Model business

The community power centre at Kibae runs on hydro and solar energy, but the energy kiosk model can be adapted to use whatever source of energy is available. Power for the centre could come from a single renewable source or, as in the case of Kibae, from a combination of sources, in a hybrid system.

Wind turbines, for example, might be more appropriate for villages that do not have a perennial stream or waterfall nearby. Other alternatives could be to use photovoltaic (solar) systems on their own, or biomass generators that burn waste material from crops such as maize, sugar cane and sorghum. Biomass generators can also use livestock waste gathered from around the village. Another option is to use vegetable oil for fuel (also known as straight vegetable oil or SVO), which could also be produced from locally grown crops.

A CPC can also run on grid electricity if there is access to the grid in the area. Such an arrangement might seem unnecessary, but UNIDO has found that in rural areas that are served by the main grid, only about 20% of households can afford a connection and to make regular payments for the service. The community power centre, however, makes its services available to everyone in the community who only pay for the electricity they use, without the need for minimum monthly payments. From its various activities and services the CPC should make enough money to cover running costs, repairs and make a profit. This is the only way the CPC model can be viable and replicable throughout Kenya and convince other countries to replicate the initiative.

The cost of setting up a CPC ranges from US$ 5000–100,000 depending on the size of the centre and the type of electricity generating technology it uses. A typical centre would serve a population of 2000, but this could be easily scaled down to serve a few hundred or expanded to supply several thousand people.

The typical running costs of a community power centre are shown in the table below.

Table: Typical running costs of a community power centre

Cost Amount per month (KSh)
Maintenance of equipment 15,000
Salaries of two caretakers 10,000
Consumables 5,000
Contingencies 5,000
Total expenses 35,000

In the case of the community centre at Kibae, providing recharging services, computer and internet access and processing agricultural produce generate more than KSh 90,000 per month (US$ 1150). The facility, therefore, brings in enough money to ensure its continued operation and offers extra income generation opportunities for farmers and local businesses. A stable and reliable electricity supply also means that the community has access to communication technology – small growers can use access agricultural information via the internet and can contact buyers and transport companies using mobile phones.

Mobile phone facilities in Kibae will increase further in future, with new businesses selling airtime and mobile banking services to people who do not own their own mobile phone. The centre will also expand to serve a further 200 households, and more businesses will open in the community centre to provide photocopying and printing services, and even a beauty salon.

The community power centre at Kibae, along with the other facilities supported by UNIDO’s rural energy initiative, have proven to be successful and viable projects capable of supplying reliable and cost-effective electricity to areas off the main grid. In fact, the organization is so convinced by the success of these projects, and their ability to be replicated in other areas around the world, that it is now looking for communities with no alternative electricity supply to submit proposals for similar initiatives. By expanding the scheme, UNIDO hopes to bring affordable renewable energy supplies to rural communities in many more ACP countries.


Paul Njuguna is an expert in renewable energy who works with UNIDO in Kenya.

Related links

UNIDO website

UNIDO Kenya Website

Lighting up Kenya blog : A blog covering UNIDO's activities to bring sustainable renewable energy and productive activities to Kenyan rural communities.

08 December 2008

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)