Out of Africa: microhydro lights rural Kenya

The big problems with national electricity grids in Africa get a lot of attention, but for most Africans who live in rural areas -- of the grid -- the only hope to get electricity at all is to do it themselves.

I've long been a promoter of the idea that home-grown electricity systems based on tiny dams and so-called "micro-hydro" systems can provide a lot of relief for poor or marginalized African peasants. There is hardly a bandwagon behind inexpensive micro-hydro electricity systems, even though tens of thousands of them could be installed easily in such water-rich and electricity-poor countries as Uganda and Malawi, for instance. But micro-hydro in Africa is growing nicely, providing hope for the future in an otherwise gloomy electricity outlook for the world's poorest region.

Reports this month out of central Kenya -- where I happen to be at the time of posting -- naturally caught my interest. Residents of a village named Kibai are benefit from a miniature hydro generating facility at a small waterfall on a river called the Mukengeria. The electricity generated by the system isn't much actually; an estimated 2.5 kilowatts a day. Yet the power is enough to charge batteries for mobiles, run a few computers, a television set and some small industrial machinery.

Sounds modest but it adds up to a revolution in daily life in Kibai.

Such projects can be easily duplicated, so long as prices for the basic materials, can be brought down through mass purchasing. The turbine is especially important to get right. Kibai relied on a United Nations agency for help (the U.N.'s Industrial Development Organization). Not exactly a low-cost provider, the U.N. deserves credit for keeping alive the micro-hydro dream.

The real leap forward will come when governments offer micro-hydro packages in do-it-yourself kits -- and by the tens of thousands. Anywhere water runs, even a little a bit, there is the promise of electricity. Governments are showing more interest in the concept, though not a single African country currently is supporting more than a token effort, which is too bad.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.