NAIROBI (AlertNet) - In 2002, Kenya's government announced a plan to embark on some ambitious infrastructure projects, including some that it hoped would kickstart Kenya's move towards a greener economy.
Many citizens dismissed the idea, assuming that, like the pronouncements of previous governments, these too would come to nothing.
However, Kenya today is home to a number of initiatives that help fight the effects of climate change while simultaneously boosting development and creating jobs. And with several other projects in the early stages, experts say the nation may one day stand as an example to others that green ideals and social equity can go hand-in-hand.
One such project is the Olkaria IV Geothermal Power Project, which was inaugurated in July 2012 and is set to be completed by mid-2014. Part of the biggest geothermal effort in Africa, the project is situated in Naivasha, in Kenya's Rift Valley, and should add 280megawatts of power to the national grid.
Then there is the Lake Turkana Wind Power project , which comes into operation this year and is expected to create up to 2,500 jobs. At a cost of Ksh 75 billion ($882 million), it is not only the biggest wind-power project on the continent but also the largest single private investment in Kenya's history.
Both initiatives are consistent with constitutional requirements in Kenya to protect the environment. Since 2010, the constitution has called for “sustainable exploitation, utilisation, management and conservation of the environment and natural resources.”
Chris Ackello, an agricultural economist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, thinks Olkaria and the Lake Turkana wind project (LTWP) will also bring Kenya big economic advantages.
“They will provide cheaper sources of energy, thereby stimulating industrialisation by making Kenyan goods and services cheaper," he said. "(And that will) consequently boost the country's competiveness in the region against such economic powers as Egypt and South Africa."
CLEANING UP CHARCOAL
Experts say the Olkaria geothermal project and the LTWP wind farm promise great returns for Kenya. But their benefits are long term – and today Kenya is powered by more polluting fuels.
Up to 80 percent of Kenyans depend on wood-based fuel for their energy needs. Charcoal production, which is illegal in Kenya but nonetheless widespread, is having a devastating effect on the country's forests. For every 10 tonnes of trees felled for charcoal production, only a tonne is converted into charcoal – the rest simply goes to waste.
In an attempt to curb the charcoal industry's environmental impact while also opening up a new source of revenue, the government, through the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), has embarked on a scheme to regulate the industry by legalising it.
The hope is that by encouraging greener charcoal-making methods, the government can bring in investors looking to put money into a more sustainable industry. As an added benefit, the initiatives are expected to generate income for the government through levies and taxes that illegal charcoal producers currently escape.
And while the government tries to save the country's trees, it also wants people to plant more of them. Kenya's forests are concentrated in its mountainous regions, which make up part of the fertile 20 percent of the country’s land mass. This small area is home to 80 percent of the population and the source of most of the country's agricultural produce.
Looking to tap into the unrealised potential of Kenya's farmland, the Kenya Forest Service is promoting tree growing as a commercial venture. This initiative aims to bring the country’s tree cover up to 10 percent from the current 2 percent.
“We want to concentrate more on managing farmlands by not just planting trees in the forests but also encouraging tree-growing in our agricultural landscapes,” says KFS director David Mbugua.
Trees planted in farming areas can help boost soil nutrients, curb erosion, and provide alternative sources of income to farmers, either from fruit growing or when they are harvested, experts say.
The tree-planting scheme is expected to boost income both for the government, by way of fees and taxes, and for people through job creation. Revenue generated will be used to fund the reforestation of areas that have been depleted by the charcoal industry.
But even those involved in the tree-planting project will have to wait some time before seeing the benefits. For an example of a green economy project with almost immediate results, no single initiative can beat conservation agriculture.
By practicing resource-saving crop production, farmers can quickly increase their yields, agricultural experts say. Planting with minimal soil disturbance, intercropping nitrogen-fixing trees (which produce a natural fertiliser) with plants, using harvested crop residue to cover the soil, crop rotation – all these techniques have the combined effect of retaining soil moisture, reducing the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, increasing soil nutrients, and keeping soil-borne diseases at a minimum, all while producing more food.
So far, conservation agriculture is proving a boon to smallholder farms in Kenya. Since last year, when the government sent out a task force to help entrench the practices in parts of the country, farmers adopting the approach have doubled their crop yield, the government says.
“We are looking into ways of scaling up the practice to cover the whole country in the near future,” said Jasper Nkanya, engineer in charge of agricultural services at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.
The new farming techniques, regulatory initiatives and major renewable-energy projects should all enrich Kenya's economy as they help save the environment, experts say. If a recent study by the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis is anything to go by, the country stands to gain greatly from investing in green projects.
An analysis undertaken by the institute shows that positive results will be realised after seven to 10 years of green investments. It also suggests that the country may achieve even faster economic growth over the long run, with an average annual real GDP growth rate of 5 percent between 2010 and 2030, compared to the current annual growth rate of 3.7 percent.
Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi. He has written widely on science and health issues for local newspapers as well as online publications.