Conservation should go in hand with addressing the needs of the poor

Opinion by Sally Akinyi, March 26, 2018

From drought to floods, the impact of the global climate change has extended its tentacles to Africa. Notably, Kenya has felt the scourge of erratic rain patterns and extreme weather events. In the months of February and March, discussions around the country’s ‘slow desertification’ made headlines in the media with a huge public debate on how to recover its depleted forests.

As a reactive measure to save forests, the national government and some county governments issued directives to stop illegal logging and charcoal production.

However, the crisis only brought to light a tip of the ice-berg of the deeper issue that urgently needs to be resolved: the continued deprivation of clean energy for the poor.

Kenya’s resolve to upscale renewable energy systems has received wide recognition within the region. The country‘s electricity generation from renewables is now almost at 80 per cent. But this latest development- a drop in the ocean- is still far off from reaching majority of the ‘energy poor’ and achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG ) 7 on clean and affordable energy for all.

According to statistics, in counties like Marsabit, 92.6 per cent of the citizens continue to use firewood for clean cooking with a measly 3.6 per cent connected to the national grid and receiving electricity. Worse still, women and children continue to die from indoor pollution attributed to charcoal and firewood use. These problems only show citizens have been left at the mercy of unreliable energy systems that will soon go extinct if nothing is done. Simply put, the next generation will have no clean air, water and food.

The push to save our forests by banning charcoal production will only continue to propel energy poverty if citizens do not have an alternative source of fuel. With the current population growth exploding at a high rate, continous demand on biomass for energy is straining the country’s resources.

Furthermore, the charcoal production value chain (a lucrative income earner worth KES 32 billion- equivalent to USD 317 million- a year) is defined by mass exportation of resources from rural to urban areas, with most of the income going to the top players rather than those involved in production or small-scale sales. This alarming trend depicts an unregulated sector that is leading to extinct woodlands. This also begs the question: Are there sustainable alternatives to provide a solution? Especially for the families who were dependent on biomass for cooking fuel or income.

To inhibit deforestation where it’s estimated Kenya’s loses 12,000 hectares of forest cover every year; the government needs to not only focus on macro- renewable energy projects but simple clean cooking solutions that will address citizens’ energy needs and securing livelihoods.

Alternative sources of fuel key in addressing the energy deficit

Clean cooking technologies such as biogas and biomass briquettes can provide a sustainable solution to address the current clean energy deficit in the country.  The two alternatives of clean energy are made from a mix of various sources, for biomass briquettes:  rice husks waste, saw dust and bagasse, for biogas: cow dung and kitchen waste. Countries in Africa such as Burkina Faso have proven that investment in efficient clean cooking can significantly reduce indoor pollution, protect the environment and improve livelihoods. The Sahel country is leading as one of the first West African countries to build a successful commercial market for biogas. With support from development organizations such as Hivos, there has been a deliberate government effort to scale up the use of biogas to the bottom of the pyramid families- who have borne the brunt of climate change. None of these developments would have been successful without political good will that translated to a conducive policy environment.

With Kenya’s commitment to SDG 7 through the Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) alliance, clean cooking solutions are paramount in driving the country’s universal energy access. While the solutions go a long way in addressing the energy needs of the millions of people reliant on biomass for fuel, they also aid in empowering the bottom of the pyramid families especially women to create income opportunities and become in charge of their own energy systems.

Climate financing

Kenya’s clean cooking solutions largely remain underfunded by the national government. The majority of the funding comes from development aid partners and civil society organizations, which is not a sustainable funding source for the future.

The private sector can be part of this equation by offering smart climate financing services. Investing in a market-based approach to upscale clean cooking solutions has been a pillar of success for iconic initiatives such as the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (ABPP). The multi-country programme implemented in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso has enabled more than 300,000 lives to have access to a clean source of energy.

ABBP’s financing model has propelled biogas uptake through partnerships with the private sector in the five countries. These partnerships have leveraged on creation of a thriving market by tailoring innovative financial products. Through small loans, families have invested in biogas plants and overtime have made savings in the cost of firewood, pesticide and fertilizers.

The government can drive investment in the sector by creating a conducive policy environment where markets can thrive. The country’s Ministry of Energy through the National Treasury should allocate more financing towards clean cooking solutions in the national budget and take a further step by partnering with the banking sector to offer financial products that can catalyse uptake of alternatives such biomass briquettes, biogas and solar.

Creating an ‘environmental justice’ movement

Environmental justice involves people in the development of environmental laws and policies. It puts citizens at the heart of decision making in an effort to boost responsible citizenship.

In 2017, I was privileged to attend the Bioneers Conference, an annual social change movement that brings together citizens to create their own solutions in order to solve social injustice in the USA. All united by a common goal of driving social change, over 100 families gathered in California’s Marin County to come up with solutions to counter problems such as climate change, environmental injustice by oil companies, monopolization of the food sector by multi-nationals and crop failures. It was an example of the power of communal solidarity and spawning concrete solutions to solve the most pressing problems experienced in the everyday life of the human race.

The time is right for a generation of change through environmental ambassadorship. Citizens can take charge of their own environment in a forge to ‘green’ our society and show zero tolerance to environmental destruction.