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Oct 22, 2019

Championing Access to Clean Energy: One on One with George Mwangala

George Mwangala wears a dark, long and slick beard- the kind that has become so popular in Kenya lately. His facial outlook is matched with eyes that are gentle and appealing. Yet behind this face is an innovative campaigner who has led other young people in championing access to clean energy not only in Kenya but also across Africa. He spoke to Vincent Ogaya and Sarah Makena on the status of access to renewable energy in Kenya, his experiences in advocacy and what promise the recently passed Energy Act holds for our country.

Who is George Mwangala and what does he do?
I work with Purpose leading climate energy work for the Kenya office and I have a lot of experience in energy access and climate change work both in Kenya, across the region and globally as well. My areas of interest are climate policy and energy policy and how these affect communities.

What drives your passion in championing access to clean energy?
Mostly it’s because I grew up in a village where everyone was using wood, charcoal and the korobois (lanterns). I had the privilege, at some point, of using gas lamps when my dad bought them so it was interesting to see how that was different from the rest of the people in the village; how when people had functions they would always come home to get the pressure lamps or the gas lamps…They did that for most of the weekends. Having moved to the city, it was amazing to see that there were communities still using kerosene for lighting and cooking. But then, you still find a lot of communities in this country who use wooden charcoal as a primary source of fuel for cooking.  You look at what their kitchens look like- it’s sooty you know, it’s turned black because of the exposure to smoke, which means a lot of women who mostly use the kitchen probably have their lungs affected too. I contrasted this with the available options in clean energy based on my experiences abroad. I’ve had the privilege to travel a bit and stayed in Europe where I saw how people there used clean energy and how it improved their lifestyles.  I thought these are things that can definitely work at home. Out of curiosity, my interest in energy access grew.

How do you see energy access in Kenya right now, especially comparing rural with urban communities?
We are still energy poor as a country. We look at energy only from the lighting pointing of view. That’s what the Last Mile for instance has focused on.  To me energy access means I can cook with energy that is clean and is available; I can light my home; I can easily produce; I can pump water- that’s when I can say I have access to energy. Until then, our country still remains energy poor.

Through your work, what initiatives have you undertaken that enable communities to access clean energy?
My interest has been in what role community mobilising means, what role governments play and what role businesses play. And so, my work has revolved around looking at the existing gaps in energy policy and also understanding what communities already know regarding energy access.  To a lot of people energy is just the light. So, from 2016 through 2017 till now, working with Purpose and other players in the country, we’ve been looking at demystifying such concepts around energy access so that people look at it wholesomely from lighting to cooking and for other productive use as well. Moving from the complex science of energy to making people understand that when you talk about energy it’s not just about light but also about health, it’s about education, it’s about agriculture and basically what we are talking about is that energy is an enabler of development- it’s what moves other sectors. I also use my communication background to simplify any information and data that goes out around energy access. I have also worked with both county and national governments to guide their thinking towards seeing energy as something that drives growth in other sectors. For instance, you look at a health clinic in a remote village in Marsabit which just needs a solar panel. You look at the agriculture sector as well. Some rural communities can’t farm because of lack of water. If they had solar powered pumps, they could easily pump water to their farms. Look at education, how many kids study when there’s daylight but they can’t when night falls? You got to look at street lighting and whether there can be increased economic activities even at night when the streets are well lit.  

What was your experience with the big shift campaign?
In 2017, we ran a campaign called the Big Shift which was basically around shifting from fossils to clean and renewable energy sources and we went around the country talking to communities and political aspirants as well, given that 2017 was an election year. Our aim was also to understand the expectations of communities in terms of energy access and whether this could be turned into a political agenda, and yes communities understood it as a big issue that needed much focus. There was however a big disconnect with policy makers at the county level because by then, there were no standalone energy departments in almost all the counties. The first-generation County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs) almost had zero mentions of energy.  So, we did a lot of sensitisation to political aspirants to ensure energy access found its place in political conversations.

You did a lot of work around the Energy Act. Tell us more of the opportunities it has for Kenyans.
The Energy Act provides a lot of opportunities for everyone- investors, governments, young people to be able to ensure everyone has access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy. That is to say, energy they can pay for; energy that is stable; and energy that is sustainable to the environment. Energy Act provides a lot of opportunities for people to have their own mini-grids, you can have solar on your rooftops then through net metering feed the surplus energy to the national grid and get paid for it.  The provision for energy planning in the counties and nationally and the need for the government to enable access to energy by everyone gives us, as civil society, the exercise of demanding the same.  There will be county energy plans that will then be used to form a national energy plan.  

Anything the government needs to do further to ensure the Act fully benefits wananchi?
There’s need for knowledge transfer from national government to county governments. There is also need for county governments to hire technical people on renewable energy to run energy departments and also invest in putting resources to run these departments. 

Investments in the energy sector have the potential to enable access to energy…
Definitely! And investors are mainly interested in returns. What the government needs to do is to ensure there is political goodwill which- as per now- has been affirmed by the passage of the Energy Act. We now need sound regulations that would provide an enabling environment for investors to want to put their money in the energy sector. There definitely has to be incentives also, which could include tax breaks and land for investors to say, put up solar firms.  We have to think of ways to attract more investments mostly in solar because globally solar is the trend- the cost of solar is falling.

How about innovations?
We also need to innovate and learn from other countries such as India and Germany which have a lot of innovations around clean energy. Kenya is an innovation hub and we only need to do more in terms of shifting ideas to clean energy. Young people need to be offered incentives and the opportunity to learn. This way, they can come up with innovations that make energy affordable, efficient and sustainable…

What’s the place of innovation hubs such as KCIC in all this?
Innovation hubs  like KCIC are doing well currently in supporting innovators especially those who may not necessarily need much but just guidance on how to improve their innovations and a little bit of exposure. They may however improve on finding exit programs for innovators through linkages to other young innovators in advanced countries like India and Germany.

Is energy access something that is worrying the youth?
Young people worry about money. For us young people, we are always worried about how we are going to make the next coin. Conversations around access to energy for the youth therefore are about how energy enables them to make money. Young people don’t just converse about energy or energy access superficially but about how it enables them access money. For example, ‘If I’m to run a cybercafé or a welding shop then I’ll need a source of power’. Such are the conversations around energy that worry them…  

Is there need to engage them more in such conversations?
Precisely. Involvement of young people is key. They need to be at the table meaningfully engaging in conversations around policy issues in the energy sector. Because of their drive and enthusiasm, they’re likely going to bring in better ideas informed by global trends because the youth are trendy. Their involvement in energy projects is also key so that opportunities are created for them- as technicians or any other job available- so that they are able to keep up with technology because new technology requires sharp minds. 

Your work around energy access in Kitui County is something worth talking about.
Among the things we were doing in Kitui County was to bring discussions around energy access to the Executive level. It also involved demystifying the concept of energy access to the people- ensuring that that eight-year old schoolgirl in Kitui understands what energy access means. That aside from lighting, it also means how you cook; it’s about your security when you’re walking home…are the streets lit? How long does it take you to access healthcare for instance when you’re bitten by a snake? With knowledge on access to energy, people will then start asking for energy during public participation forums- so that we don’t only look at development, for example,  on the basis of a health center built here or a school being put up there, but we should  also be able to ask whether such facilities are well powered so that we are able to access the services that are meant to be provided in them. The government in Kitui is already developing the county’s energy plan informed by the people. The experience in Kitui shows that communities need to be informed so that they can get involved.

Your parting shot…
Energy is the driver of development and should be given due recognition as such. It’s now time that counties have separate energy departments with budgets and fully functional offices. Focus also needs to on renewable energy especially solar. Planning from the basic level is also key, so that you don’t put up a polytechnic that is fully equipped with machinery and computers only to realise during its launch that it doesn’t have a source of power. By hiring technical people, concepts around energy will be demystified to government officials and policy makers- so that when they start planning, they look at energy from the end as something that is driving the success of their plans, projects and all the other sectors in general. It is noteworthy that at least 38 counties currently appreciate energy in their CIDPs. This is a good step towards energy access.

A redacted version of this interview was first published on our Live Green magazine, issue 9 by Vincent Ogaya and Sarah Makena

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