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2014-09-24 | News

What makes small hydro in Kenya work?

When some remote communities in Kenya can’t access the national grid, they build their own  small scale hydro power projects to meet basic household electricity needs. But if people don’t work together to share the small amount of electricity such a scheme generates, the mini-grid collapses, plunging everyone into the dark.

Doctoral researcher Mary Karumba, with the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Research Policy Unit (EPRU) in South Africa, wants to understand why some of these schemes succeed, and why some don’t.

‘These hydro schemes produce less than 10 megawatts of power. That power is a ‘common pool resource’ which the community has to share,’ Karumba explains.

A mini-grid like this is enough to power home systems such as televisions and lighting, as well as small industry such as welding.

‘If each household limits their use, the broader community can draw from the grid. But if some try to plug in too many appliances, and draw too much current, it trips the system and the whole grid collapses. I want to see how communities cooperate, or not, in terms of sharing this resource.’

‘I will also look at why individual households join such community initiatives, what institutions are needed for sustainable use of the power they generate, and find out what values these families attach to community hydro electricity compared with other sources, such as electricity from solar photovoltaic technology.’

Small scale hydro of this size is cheaper than connecting a remote community to the grid, where transformers and related infrastructure are prohibitively expensive. These hydro schemes are driven by the community, but they must have access to a river that is sufficiently large and reliable in its flow.

‘Many of these initiatives are supported by industry investment, but the community needs to initiate the idea, and contribute materials, labour and land.’

Field work will begin in 2015, once Karumba has finalised her research outline and decided which communities to feature.

Karumba is currently busy with her second-year doctoral study course work, which includes a four-month stay in Nairobi at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies where she is specialising in environmental economics and development economics. She returns to South Africa late in October.


 by Leonie Joubert