Nearly 70% of the population in Kenya is currently without access to a power grid, but that number is decreasing by the day as electricity networks in the country rapidly expand.

Kenya’s situation in not unique. An estimated 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity and most of the growth in energy demand is forecast to come from the developing world.

A data analysis of energy consumption in Kenya, by a Siebel Energy Institute research team, will provide policymakers and grid planners in Kenya with the tools to improve electrification programs and ensure that reliability keeps pace with projected demand. (Image credit: : iStock/miroslav_1)

A data analysis of energy consumption in Kenya, by a Siebel Energy Institute research team, will provide policymakers and grid planners in Kenya with the tools to improve electrification programs and ensure that reliability keeps pace with projected demand. (Image credit: : iStock/miroslav_1)

With funding from the Siebel Energy Institute, Catherine Wolfram, the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, is leading a major research initiative to collect data and analyze electricity consumption and reliability in Kenya.

Wolfram, who is also the Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, is part of a team of UC Berkeley researchers who are partnering with Kenya Power to analyze their vast customer and network databases. Together, the team has analyzed patterns of electricity consumption and reliability for residential and business use in urban and rural areas.

The research team is exploring how two programs are driving electrification in Kenya. First, the Rural Electrification Authority’s efforts to extend the national grid to rural areas have brought the majority of Kenyans “under grid” or within connecting distance of an electricity transformer. By 2013, the REA had identified 26,070 rural public facilities, located across the 46 non-Nairobi counties in Kenya, of which 22,860 were deemed to be electrified. Second, plans for the “Last Mile Connectivity Project” will soon connect these under grid households with heavily subsidized connections to the national grid.

The data analysis by Wolfram and her team provides policymakers and grid planners in Kenya with the tools to improve electrification programs and ensure that reliability keeps pace with projected demand.

Professor Wolfram spoke with the Siebel Energy Institute about the project.

What inspired you to pursue this project?

My previous research covered energy and economics with a recent focus on electricity access and demand in the developing world. By using data analysis, I hope we can identify and help local authorities improve planning and delivery of energy in the developing world. The rapid electrification of Kenya can serve as an important model of development for many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which will have major implications on regional poverty alleviation and global climate change.

Why is it valuable to investigate this specific area?

The challenges associated with delivering reliable energy in countries like Kenya and India are well known. However, policy decisions may not always be based on quantitative research. Sometimes decisions are based on observations made by local leaders or anecdotal information, which may be misleading. By using standard research methodology, we can confirm some long-held beliefs and, equally important, uncover related issues that may not have been part of earlier discussions in seeking solutions.

Who are your project collaborators and how are they contributing?

We are very lucky to have an amazing hard-working researcher Kenneth Lee, who recently completed his PhD, working on this project. He is passionate and dedicated to overcoming many challenges while exercising sensitivity to local political and cultural issues. In addition, Edward Miguel, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, has worked in Kenya for over 20 years. We are working with the REA, Kenya Power and local leaders to establish more projects.

Where did you get the data you are working with?

This project requires on-the-ground research that includes traveling to rural parts of Kenya to talk with residents and gather on-the-ground facts about the electricity infrastructure. In addition, we work with Kenya Power to analyze data they provide on usage patterns and the geographic distribution of their network.

What are the unique challenges of this project?

There are always many challenges when working in a developing country. While we have been focused on documenting the accessibility and reliability of electricity in Kenya, we are learning that socio-economic and cultural issues play a critical role. These must also be addressed for residents to realize the full benefits to modernize and expand electricity use and ultimately improve the quality of life for some areas. Many locals cannot afford cost of electricity so access is often through a subsidized program. Even so, some residents cannot justify the cost of appliances such as refrigerator if the electrical service is inconsistent or unreliable.

What would it take for this research to be installed and put into use?

There are at least two ways in which our results could be useful in designing future electrification strategies. First, governments may wish to subsidize mass connection programs as the cost per household may keep electrification out of reach. Second, governments may wish to support innovative financing and payment approaches to raise connectivity especially since the traditional finance sector may view these households as high-risk. These are ongoing discussions and may take five to 10 years before we see significant change. We hope our research will help local authorities make informed decisions.

BY DOMINICK ALBANO