Forget about mega-projects and address everyday woes

Boda boda riders transport charcoal in Narok on April 13, 2017. A study conducted in 2004 estimated national charcoal consumption at 1.6 million tonnes worth Sh32 billion. PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Seventy per cent of our total energy consumption comes from biomass, principally firewood and charcoal.
  • Traditional earth kilns recover 30 per cent or less of the wood in charcoal, and the rest is lost during combustion.

“We can colonise the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames.”

The Illustrated London News was commenting on The Great Stink, a foul smell that engulfed London in the summer of 1858.

Another newspaper commented: “who so once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”

The stink was caused by raw sewage that Londoners emptied into the Thames in ever increasing quantities.

Stinks were a normal summer occurrence.

The summer of 1858 happened to be unusually hot and dry.

It had been observed that stinks coincided with outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

Those were the days of the miasma theory of disease, which postulated that epidemics were caused by inhalation of bad odours from rotting matter.

Even though the miasma theory reigned, evidence pointing to contamination of water by raw sewage was mounting.

Still, proposals to build a proper sewer system were deferred for lack of funds. Empire building was more important.

It took The Great Stink to galvanise action, but not before the stink paralysed parliamentary business.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was reportedly seen rushing out of the House of Commons with a sheaf of paper in one hand, and a handkerchief covering his nostrils in the other.

Work on the world’s first modern sewer began in 1859. It was completed in 1865.

Upon its completion, it was observed that cholera outbreaks did not recur, even when the air stank.


The sewer did its bit to disprove the miasma theory and validate the germ theory of infectious diseases.

Joseph Balzagette, the engineer who designed and oversaw its construction became a celebrity, earning himself a knighthood, a blue plaque and a memorial on the Victoria Embankment.

This column has over the last four years challenged the Jubilee administration’s procurement-led, mega-infrastructure borrowing binge, and prosecuted the case for focusing on the basic infrastructure we need to raise productivity and smallholder agricultural productivity in particular.

If you missed it: “There is not a single city or town in Kenya, and East Africa for that matter, with adequate sewerage.

"We lose a quarter of our meagre harvests to poor rural roads and lack of proper storage.” (Of bullet trains and delusions of mega techno-cities, September 12, 2014)

I would not have wished to be vindicated by the outbreak of cholera that is now spreading throughout the country, or the absence of ugali on our dinner tables, but there you are.

A few days ago, my friend Geoffrey called to find out whether he could pass by for a coffee.

Geoffrey is from Baringo. Four years ago, we worked together on a livestock development initiative for the Baringo County Government.

The project we developed targeted three value chains — dairy, goats and honey.

Geoffrey had with him a small gift — two jars of honey processed and packed by the Rachemo Honey Marketing Cooperative Society.

The cooperative is one of the outcomes of the project.

Before the project, the honey producers hawked their produce along the road in bottles.

Today, they deliver their honey to their cooperative’s modern refinery.


You can still buy it along the road, but from a branded kiosk, and it looks just like the honey jar you buy at the supermarket, complete with a Kenya Bureau of Standards quality certification label.

The women no longer have to spend the whole day on the roadside trying to sell a few bottles of honey.

The cooperative enterprise has freed their time for more productive activities.

The challenge now, Geoffrey explained, is how to increase production.


One of the production problems they need to solve is the conflict between bee-keping and charcoal production.

Smoke from traditional charcoal burning chases away bees.

But charcoal production is also an important economic activity, and no, it is not an environmental problem in the way you might think.

The charcoal comes from prosopis juliflora, commonly known as Mathenge, a hardy and prolific invasive tree that has colonised large swathes of our arid and semi-arid areas.

Mathenge needs to be harvested otherwise it forms canopies that choke all other plants in its wake, thereby destroying pastures.

In fact, besides charcoal, Mathenge is powering a 12MW electricity generation plant in Baringo.

Geoffrey was rather pleased to hear that a solution for the resource conflict may be on hand.

Replacing the traditional earth kilns with pyrolysis (or retort) kilns would not only eliminate the smoke problem, but also increase charcoal yield three-fold.

Traditional earth kilns recover 30 per cent or less of the wood in charcoal, and the rest is lost during combustion.

Pyrolysis entails “baking” biomass without air, which recovers virtually all the feedstock as charcoal.

As it happens, scaling up these types of pro-poor technologies is one of the main energy initiatives in the National Super Alliance (Nasa) manifesto.

When first proposed, the rural domestic energy focus in the Nasa manifesto confounded some of our colleagues, who were anticipating commercial energy proposals that would rival Jubilee’s mass electrification initiative.

The numbers speak for themselves. Seventy per cent of our total energy consumption comes from biomass, principally firewood and charcoal.

Petroleum for transportation accounts for 20 per cent, and electricity for 10 per cent.

A study conducted in 2004 estimated national charcoal consumption at 1.6 million tonnes worth Sh32 billion.


Assuming consumption has remained the same (47 kilogrammes per person per year), we will now be consuming 2.2 million tonnes, translating to a Sh85 billion industry today, about the same as the turnover of the entire electricity industry.

The potential gain from adopting pyrolysis kiln works out to Sh170 billion a year.

This translates to either using one third of the biomass that we are currently using, or producing three times as much charcoal from the same amount.

In a free market, the productivity gains would be shared among the producers, the consumers and, of course, the environment and society at large in so far as it will help us reduce pressure on our forests.

As I have on occasion pointed out to the mega-infrastructure know-it-alls who, on running out of argument, resort to disparaging my academic credentials and questioning my practical development experience, this is the kind of economics and development practice that interests me.

But this was also a sad week. Our gardener received news that his brother and only sibling had died.

He has been ailing for the last two months, but seemed to be getting better.

He leaves behind a widow and five children, all based in their rural home in Kitui.

Our gardener has a wife and four children.

Nganga is now effectively head of an 11-member family and is the only one with an income.

Typically, he sends two thirds of his monthly salary home.

This year alone, Nganga has borrowed the equivalent of six months salary, first to send his son to high school and then for his late brother’s hospital bills.


He is lucky that he is under no pressure to pay, but that is not the case for the vast majority of low-income earners in his circumstances.

The family has more than enough land to support itself.

In fact, if farmed productively, they would be reasonably wealthy.

But like the vast majority of our resource-poor rural households, they are trapped in subsistence by the lack of capital.

In short, they are poor because they are poor.

By capital I mean money to invest in water harvesting and storage, to start a small indigenous chicken rearing project, to buy a dairy cow or two, and perhaps set up a small greenhouse to grow vegetables a few years down the road.

A few months ago, the media reported that the Sh62 billion Thwake Dam had run into procurement trouble.

No surprises there. But reading the reports, one finds that the tender awards in question are in the order of Sh37 billion to Sh39 billion, which begs the question as to why it is a “Sh62 billion dam”.

The entire population of the three Ukambani counties is in the order of 3.5 million, which works out to about 800,000 households, and just about 300,000 rural homesteads.

At the Sh39 billion cost of the dam, the tender values work out to Sh130,000 per household.

Ukambani has more than enough rain and groundwater to supply its population with household and community-based water harvesting projects at a considerably lower cost per household.


In fact, Sh130,000 prudently invested on the farm in the manner I have suggested above would be enough to break Nganga’s homestead out of the subsistence poverty trap and set it on the path of becoming a rural middle class homestead in a couple of years.

Will the Thwake water ever make it to their homestead? Your guess is as good as mine.

At the heart of the persistence of mass poverty in Africa, despite high rates of economic growth, is the misconception of the African elite that development is synonymous with western lifestyles and physical infrastructure, as opposed to solving the everyday problems that improve the lives of ordinary people — warships and mega-dams instead of sewers and shallow wells, unless and until the big stink wafts into Westminster or Weston as the case may be.

Predictably, the response to the cholera outbreak has been to close down poor people’s eateries and to screen the workers of high-end establishments, even though the initial cases in Nairobi were all in high society establishments.

The cholera must have come from the slums.

It has yet to cross the minds of the society establishment that vibrio cholerae may be delivered to our leafy suburbs by bowser and the decrepit water pipes of our largely sewer-less metropolis, soon to be host of Africa’s highest skyscraper.

Sewers anyone?

David Ndii, an economist, is currently serving on the Nasa technical and advisory committee. He leads the Nasa policy team. [email protected] @DavidNdii


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