Kenya Emerges as Africa’s Leading Advocate for Climate Change

Kenya’s President William Ruto is promoting the East African nation as a green energy champion but the country has a way to go. In Kenya’s Olkaria region, nestled in the Rift Valley, hills blanketed with forests roll to the horizon. The green is occasionally punctuated by slopes so steep and rugged that nothing grows on them.

Africa’s tectonic plate “is splitting into two through the Great Rift Valley,” said Anna Mwangi, a geologist with KenGen, Kenya’s state-owned power generating company.

“Where we are right now is on the rift floor,” she said as she pointed to the wide valley bordered by escarpments some 120 kilometers (74 miles) northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Fine white lines of water vapor stretch towards the sky in the distance. These mark the geothermal plants operated by KenGen in the Olkaria area. KenGen has five power stations in the area, with one more under construction and another proposed. It also runs more than a dozen wellhead plants.

The location here in Olkaria is ideal for the climate-friendly geothermal plants, explained Mwangi.

Tapping into renewable energy from the ground

“We have magma coming close to the surface, and it’s heating up the groundwater and … that steam is stored [underground],” she said. Geoscientists model the location of these “pockets of steam,” which can then be drilled and harnessed to drive turbines and generate electricity.

Germany has given funding and technical support for the development of geothermal plants, the scale of which impressed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz when he visited the area in May.

Scholz said that Germany could learn from Kenya, praising the East African nation as an “inspiring climate champion.”

Green energy mix

The East African country is richly endowed with renewable energy resources. With nearly 1,000 megawatts installed, Kenya ranks first in Africa and top ten globally for geothermal power production. Large wind farms in the country’s north and hydropower also contribute to the country’s clean energy mix.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, renewables accounted for 75% of Kenya’s total energy supply in 2020.

That percentage was much higher in March 2023, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, when renewables powered 84% of the national grid. Some 50% of electricity, or 509 million kilowatt hours, came from geothermal alone.

President William Ruto, who is pushing Kenya to become a green powerhouse, is well aware of the powerful impact of such statistics on global audiences.

President Ruto’s ambitious plan for renewable energy

As the host of the inaugural Africa Climate Summit held in September, Ruto even claimed that renewable energy comprised 93% of electricity generation. The fact-checking platform Africa Check deemed this claim “incorrect.” Various climate analysts told DW that 70-80% is probably more likely.

Ruto, however, leaves no doubt about his goal. He has set an ambitious target of meeting 100% of Kenya’s electricity demand with clean energy by 2030.

Even though the renewables goal might be commendable, it’s important to note that Kenya doesn’t produce much electricity in the first place.

One in four people in Kenya still didn’t have access to electricity in 2021, and the country only has an electricity capacity of just over 3,000 megawatts. According to Bloomberg news agency, that’s just 50% more than Johannesburg consumes.

Kenya’s climate president

Ruto is also working on his image as climate-friendly in other ways, including driving himself from the State House to the climate summit venue in a small electric car. His government declared November 13 National Tree Planting Day, making the day a public holiday to encourage planting 100 million trees in the next ten years.

Ruto has also pledged to adopt low-carbon transport. One program aims to make electric motorcycle taxis, popularly known in Kenya as boda-bodas, more readily available.

Boda-bodas and tuk-tuks, small three-wheelers also used as taxis, comprise two-thirds of the national fleet, Ruto said in September while launching the electric boda-boda scheme.

However, providing electric vehicles doesn’t mean that buyers will automatically follow.

Reluctance to embrace electric vehicles

In a plain warehouse made of prefabricated parts and corrugated iron in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, Alijawaad Molu shows off the 26 electric tuk-tuks stored here.

For Molu, the co-founder of Solutions Africa, manufacturing electric tuk-tuks was about more than potentially making money.

“We asked ourselves, how can we give back to the community?” the young Mombasa-born entrepreneur said. “Money aside, noise pollution and air pollution can all be reduced in [Mombasa]. We thought that’s very important.”

His electric tuk-tuks produce zero emissions; they are roomier, less noisy, and have lower running costs. Importantly, they are powered by lead-acid batteries, widely used in Kenya, rather than the lithium-ion batteries often found in electric vehicles.

But despite offering environmentally friendly tuk-tuks at standard commercial prices, Solutions Africa has hardly sold a single e-tuk-tuk.

“Maybe we’re a bit too early,” said Molu, adding that the shorter driving range and concerns around the new technology deter buyers.

Raising the profile of green transport

That’s why Molu is pleased that President Ruto is strongly supporting green transport.

“Over the past year, [Ruto] has been doing lot to push electric mobility,” said Molu. “Look at how many new players are now on the market.”

He thinks the government could use financial incentives more cleverly to develop the green transport market. So far, his company has only benefited from a subsidy for making the tuk-tuks in Kenya, which also applies to combustion engine vehicles.

Reducing the license fees for electric tuk-tuks in Mombasa is one way of promoting them, Molu said.

“Instead of 800 Kenyan shillings ($5.25 or €4.90), they could make e-tuk-tuk owners pay just 200 shillings,” he said.

But, Molu said, the company has recently received more inquiries about the e-tuk-tuks — perhaps thanks to Ruto’s green policies or maybe because King Charles III and Queen Camilla sat in one when they visited Kenya last month.

Africa’s voice at COP28

Last week, Ruto was in Dubai, where he delivered a speech at the COP28 climate summit on behalf of all African heads of state.

There, he was praised by COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber for his “unprecedented climate brilliance” in bringing Africa together for the Africa Climate Summit.

But is Ruto’s green image a mere political calculation, as some commentators suggest, or is he a real green champion?

“What is important is that Africa has a new and loud voice speaking out about climate change and the importance of moving to a decarbonized future,” Mwenda Mithika, Executive Director of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, told DW.

“We welcome any champion, any voice which adds to the voices of those” pushing to tackle climate change, Mithika said. “We never used to have that and I think civil society is very happy that [Ruto’s] voice is very loud in this.”

This article was originally written in German.

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