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Pathways to Universal Energy Access

With Sustainable Development Goal Number 7, energy is being recognized as a key enabler for development. Access to energy for all, a higher share of renewable energy and significant improvements in energy efficiency are now an integral part of the global development priorities. Ensuring universal access to affordable electricity by 2030 requires investments in clean energy sources such as solar, wind and thermal. Expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology to provide clean energy is therefore a crucial goal that can both encourage growth and help the environment.

In order to close the energy gap, East Africa is currently undergoing an energy revolution, with large infrastructure projects across the continent. This revolution is driven by large oil discoveries in Uganda and Kenya and massive offshore natural gas finds in Tanzania. While off-grid energy solutions are part of a more sustainable path to increase energy access, these are not able to meet the country’s overall demand. Hydro and geothermal energy are therefore seen as key solutions to drive access to renewable energy in the region. The World Bank estimates that geothermal from East Africa’s Rift Valley could possibly power 150 million households.

According to World Bank data, only 36% of Kenyans have access to energy. As part of its Vision 2030 and the policy roadmap to become a middle-income country, the Kenyan government has ambitious objectives to close this gap and geothermal plays a critical role. About 14% of Kenya’s power generating capacity is geothermal today. To expand geothermal energy, the Kenyan government together with World Bank, European Investment Bank, and other development partners has invested in a multi-billion dollar project 120 km west of Nairobi to build one of the continent’s largest geothermal plants. While these investments are needed to drive energy access, they have a flipside: Relocation and resettlement of local communities, a complex reality with no easy solutions.

Living conditions before resettlement were basic

Looking at the flipside

The two sides of modernization become visible taking a closer look into the booming geothermal industry along the Rift Valley. While the neighboring urban population in towns like Naivasha benefits from the transition, it is a local Maasai community of 140 households, who has been living there since the 18th century, that seems to be on the losing side. The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Kenya’s Geothermal Development Company (GDC) have implemented a number of initiatives to protect the standards of living of those affected by their projects. However, many of the community members perceive they lost out in the process of resettlement. While part of the loss is tangible, a big part has to do with identity and other intangibles.

The Maasai community has traditionally been a pastoralist community, whose life and identity revolves around livestock. Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep have been the primary source of income for the Maasai, critical for subsistence security (milk, meat, blood) but also with a social utility. They were traditionally traded for other livestock or cash, and serve as insurance and risk mitigation mechanism for difficult times. The entire Rift Valley and especially the area around Naivasha due to its supply of water, used to be the traditional heartland of the Maasai territory, hence connecting the community with strong ancestral ties to the land. In recent years, many of the Maasai community near Olkaria have been involved in tourism, running a cultural center, selling of beads and jewelry and other cultural projects, sharing their culture with the number of tourists coming to Hell’s Gate National Park. Another part of the community has been involved in trading activities with nearby towns.

Livestock traditionally has been the wealth of the Maasai community and is an integral part of the identity.


The resettlement provided around 1200 people with new housing, a school, clinic and other infrastructure as well as different compensation packages. However, for many the change in living conditions affected their previous livelihood and income sources as well as aspects of culture and identity. The new location removed the community from their livestock due to a lack of green pastures and grassland. Traditionally, property did not mean anything to the Maasai community. With the new 2-bed room houses new aspirations got created, such as televisions, furniture, cars or other material goods. The new life style requires new daily expenses such as charcoal used in the modern kitchens, instead of the fire wood used for traditional cooking methods. With the integration in the cash economy and new requirements of the modern way of life, the Maasais’ perceived wealth is diminishing as cows are turned into money.

Housing conditions sigificantly improved. 2 bed room houses were built for 140 households.


A recent study on alternative livelihood opportunities for the Maasai provided me the opportunity to understand these complexities. In a participatory process, we immersed ourselves in the local context for some time to understand how different members of the relocated community perceive the change. We wanted to understand how different members feel about existing and possible income generating activities and to jointly identify pathways for alternate livelihood options.

Three change catalysts

Over the years, the situation has become complex in Olkaria: Our research showed that there is no easy answer to providing new income opportunities for those living in the four villages. A multi-year mediation process, the engagement of various NGOs and human rights organizations as well as an other organizations that have been coming in due to the increased national and international attention have left their marks on the community, resulting in a complex local power play and political economy.  A number of community institutions have been formed as multi-stakeholder forums to articulate and represent the interests of different groups and members within the four villages.[1]

We realized creating alternative livelihood opportunities, building skills and capacities, and creating a community vision that emphasizes education requires a long-term process. While a number of Maasai have been provided with jobs through KenGen, the challenge is to create alternative income opportunities in the surrounding areas or as micro entrepreneurs. Overall, formal education and skill levels of the Maasai community are low, posing an additional challenge. However, through a participatory process that involved different social groups of elders, women, and youth, we found key individuals that can act as drivers of change in any new planned livelihood intervention:

Elders: The Influencer

Social interactions, household responsibilities, political power and rituals depend on the age and gender of each individual in the Maasai community. Elders are traditionally the directors and advisors of day to day activities and hold key functions in the Maasai political system. Post the resettlement many elders received functions in community institutions. While some of the elders recognize the importance of education, others have strong perceptions about ‘modern’ employment opportunities, for example in tourism or local business. Others acknowledge the role of education: “What is good about my current job is that the job is providing money for education,” mentions a local elder who works as a security guard. It is hence critical to involve those who recognize the need for change.

Elders have a critical role in the community political system and hence need to be involved in any change process.


Women: The Drivers of Change

A number of mid-aged women have found ways to integrate themselves into the modern economy: While some have tried out employment opportunities at nearby flower farms or in the tourism industry, others have ventured into starting micro-businesses as shop owners or in small-scale farming. Seeds of cooperative structures and self-help groups exist that can be leveraged to increase income opportunities, increase produced quantities of beads and jewelry, and to act as aggregator needed to create market linkages. “We are 25 women in our group; we all save KSh 250 per month. If it is your turn, you can take a loan,” explains one of the women. Many women use the loans to purchase beads for their jewelry business or for other economic activities. A number of women in the community value education and despite low incomes make it a priority to pay for children’s primary and secondary education.

Young women with aspirations play an important role to drive change in the society. This young woman finished class eight school education and would like to work in an office. Her husband has formal employment.


Youth: The Visionary

While the amount of school drop outs is high and the number of those youth completing secondary education is low, a few ambitious young boys and girls can act as important change makers in the community. “I want to be an engineer, and work with KenGen,” tells us a young boy, who finished class 12 and shared with us how he loves science. “The kids are thirsty and hungry for education, they love learning,” shares the Head Teacher of the local school. The number of children and youth with primary and secondary school education has increased over the past decade; however, there is little awareness about how to enter the formal job market or access vocational training. “How to access the world outside is the biggest challenge,” the head teacher adds. If not nurtured appropriately, the vision and ambition of the youth may faint; hence it is important to work with the few role models and involve them as multipliers for change in the community.

Youth is the future of this community. This young woman finished her class 12 and is now applying for university.

Outlook: The need for Participation

The Rift Valley is not only an environmentally, but also a culturally fragile part of Kenya. It is part of one of the country’s poorest communities. The expansion of geothermal energy demonstrates that modernization comes with a complex set of socio-economic impacts on the local communities. The geothermal plant has contributed to the transformation of the Maasai community’s way of life. While the resettlement has improved the quality of life in some parts through better housing, sanitation, and education, it confronts the community with a tension of modern and traditional life styles. Providing alternate income opportunities for this community therefore requires a long-term process that can only succeed if owned by the community and involving key drivers of change in the creation of a change vision.

Other Resources:

Mariita, Nicholas O (2002): The impact of large scale renewable energy on the poor: environmental and socio-economic impact of a geothermal power plant on a rural community in Kenya. Energy Policy 30 (2002), 1119-1129

Mwangi-Gachau, Elizabeth (2011): Social aspects of geothermal development – A case of Olkaria geothermal project in Kenya. Kenya Electricity Generating Company Ltd.

[1] Philipp Juma Barasa (2015): Public Participation in the Implementation of the 280MW Geothermal Power Projects at Olkaria in Naivasha Sub-County, Nakuru County, Kenya. Proceedings World Geothermal Congress 2015.