Plans to build the multi-billion shilling High Grand Falls Dam - a flagship project conceived ten years ago - have kicked off in earnest after the government formally signed the first agreement with a British construction firm that has been awarded the contract.
The Project Development Agreement (PDA), signed between the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) and the GBM Engineering Consortium, now gives the British contractor permission to set up camp in the project area in Kitui and Tharaka counties and begin preparations, including updating earlier feasibility studies.
According to the PDA agreement seen by the Nation, the contractor will have six months to complete ground mapping and update all technical and social data to determine how many households will be affected and the actual scope of work.
Mr Steve Mburu, a Kenyan based in London who works for GBM Engineering as Operations Director, and Mr Michael Short, the company's Managing Director, signed on behalf of the contractor, while Eng Charles Muasya, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the National Irrigation Authority, signed on behalf of the government.
The signing ceremony was witnessed by the UK Trade Envoy to Kenya Theo Clarke and senior government officials including Principal Secretaries Ephantus Kimotho (Irrigation) and Abubakar Hassan Abubakar (Trade and Investment) at Maji House Nairobi.
The High Grand Falls Dam is a privately initiated Public Private Partnership basis to be built at the confluence of the Mutonga and Tana Rivers, just after the Seven Folks Cascade Project, with the main reservoir covering an area of more than 165 square kilometres.
The British contractor will finance, design, build, own and operate the project for several years to recover its costs, meaning the Kenyan government won't pay a penny in the Public Private Partnership arrangement.
In terms of its vast size and estimated cost of Sh425 billion, the dam will not only be Africa's second largest freshwater dam after Egypt's Aswan Dam on the River Nile but also the largest single government project, costing more than the Standard Gauge Railway.
According to Mr Kimotho, the PS for State Department of Irrigation, when completed the dam will provide more than 5600 million cubic metres of water to irrigate 400,000 hectares of land while generating up to 1000 megawatts of hydroelectric power.
"This is a multi-purpose project aimed at providing clean water, hydropower generation, flood control, irrigation development, eco-tourism and aquaculture and improving the livelihood of the region and the country," the PS said.
Mr Kimotho urged the contractor to move fast and ensure the project preparation is completed within six months. The actual costs will be determined and negotiated before the main contract is signed.
The contractor said the actual hard work of delivering the project within the set timelines had started and assured the government of utmost diligence.
Mr Mburu said they were happy that the government had completed a lengthy due diligence process on the viability of their proposal and that the consortium funding the project, which includes the UK government and investment, was ready to hit the ground running.
"We have mobilised sufficient technical and financial capacity and the six-month period stipulated in the PDA agreement will set in motion what we will be doing for the next five years," Mr Mburu said.
The British trade envoy said she was representing the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, in the project negotiations and specifically to give assurances of the British government's full support to the contractor in the actualisation of the project.
The dam project almost collapsed during the administration of former President Uhuru Kenyatta due to bidding controversies and court battles, but last year President William Ruto signed a UK-Kenya Strategic Partnership agreement with Mr Sunak to fast-track British investment projects.
The two leaders, who met in November last year on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, agreed to fast-track six green investment projects worth Sh500 billion to support Kenya's leadership on climate change, covering green energy, agriculture and transport.
The Ruto-Sunak deal effectively resolved the five-year tendering dispute that had dogged the project during Mr Kenyatta's second term.
At the centre of the procurement dispute was a British firm - GBM Engineering - which had won a competitive tender to build the High Grand Falls dam in Kitui and Tharaka Nithi counties, only to have its win cancelled.
A statement from the British High Commission in Nairobi revealed that GBM Engineering, which was frustrated under President Kenyatta and had its bid cancelled, will now undertake the project.
A Sh425 billion Public Private Partnership to deliver the High Grand Falls Dam, which will generate one gigawatt of renewable electricity and provide drought-relief irrigation to an area more than twice the size of the Maasai Mara," the statement said.
"The project will include both a power purchase agreement for clean energy and a Water Purchase Agreement for agricultural irrigation,'' the statement read.
These new, clean and green investments will be flagship projects of the UK-Kenya Strategic Partnership - an ambitious five-year agreement to unlock mutual benefits for the UK and Kenya.
The pact also includes guarantees where the UK will work with CPF Financial Services and other private investors, including Cardano Development, to establish a new guarantee company that will de-risk investments and unlock private finance from pension funds and insurance companies for projects in Kenya.
The dispute over the proposed dam project arose after the National Irrigation Board refused to award the contract despite numerous orders from the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board which heard the case a record five times before taking it to court.