By Cynthia Gichiri
The afternoon sun is overhead at Lelen Village, Emining Ward in Baringo County, Kenya. For a typical dry season, it has already scorched everything green in its sight except the invasive cactus plants that litter the dusty and rocky seven kilometer stretch from the Nakuru-Marigat road into the village. Strong winds blow momentarily as if to cool down the torturous heat. Such is the weather in Baringo and other arid regions in Kenya.
The village’s only borehole is easy to spot with a modern water kiosk, solar panels on its left, an elevator tank on the right and a bevy of activities taking place around it. Women, men and children have gathered from near and far to fetch the most precious commodity-water. Herds of cattle, goats and donkeys also throng in the vicinity, each settling on either of the troughs overflowing with a drink of precious life while some rest under the shade of dry acacia trees.
Caption: A section of the Lelen village borehole
For close to two years, this community borehole has brought life and hope to Lelen village, shielding it from the harsh effects of the drought that is ravaging Baringo County.
It uses solar energy to pump water to an elevator tank before supplying it to the kiosk; as well as light the premises during the night. Villagers call it their “ATM” because of the convenience of fetching water at any time of the day.
The machine uses a special pre-paid token card to switch on the taps; each releasing 20 litres of water at a time. A different pipe is used to supply water to nearby troughs for use by livestock.
“It feels like a dream. Our animals are healthy compared to those from other parts of Baringo. In fact, this is the first time since the 80s where we have not lost any of them to drought. They will fetch very good prices at the market. Watching them drink water as we go about our business makes us happy,” a beaming Jane Kiprono explains, flashing her milk-white smile; perhaps the most visible evidence of joy and relief.
Until August 2020, Jane and other women from this village would endure daily back-breaking journeys to Molop village, some ten kilometers away to fetch water for domestic use and for their livestock.
This would require them to set off as early as 3am for a four-hour trek to the nearest water point.
“It was worse for those of us who did not have donkeys to help us carry the water. Our daughters had to drop out of school so that they could stay behind with their younger siblings as we fetched water. We lost our livestock every year due to drought and the long distance to Molop”, she explains.
Baringo is among twelve regions in Kenya facing prolonged drought in the country. The others are Marsabit, Mandera, Turkana, Kilifi, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River, Isiolo, Lamu, Kitui, Samburu and Laikipia.
This is mainly attributed to poor rains during the March, April and May 2021 season coupled with a prolonged drought season that stretches back to October, November and December 2020.
According to the Kenya Red Cross Society’s drought situation update released in August 2021, over two million Kenyans living in these counties face starvation with fears that the situation could get out of hand unless the state acts swiftly. For residents living in arid and semi- arid regions like Jane, such warnings had become their way of life.
Although salvation for Lelen village came in form of a borehole in 2011, the diesel-powered generator that was used to pump water to a small reservoir tank was difficult to manage.
“It takes about ten men to switch on the generator, which would also break down frequently. Sometimes we would wait for days to refill the required fuel since one had to walk for over 20 kilometers to Marigat to get it. The smoke emissions from the generator also affected our health” adds Francis Kiprop, a resident of Lelen.
These inconveniences meant that the village folk, especially women would go back to walking ten kilometers away in search of water thus rendering the borehole useless.
Their relief came in August 2020 through a partnership between United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Small Grants Programme and Farming Systems Kenya, which facilitated the installation of solar panels at the borehole.
The panels convert sunlight to electricity, which pumps water to an elevator tank with the capacity of holding one hundred cubic meters of water.
Piping done by the county government of Baringo has enabled distribution of water to people living near the project and at Kapsagatia village, four kilometers away.
“The soil in Baringo is fertile but water is very scarce. Water can help mitigate the effects of climate change by aiding irrigation, thus providing food and pasture,” says Humphrey Wafula, the executive director of Farming Systems Kenya (FSK).
The organization, which works with small scale farmers in seven counties focuses on environmental conservation and climate change mitigation.
“What we did in Lelen was to change the whole system. The solar power not only pumps the water to the main reservoir, but also to households as far as six kilometers away. Initially we were targeting 600 households but with our partnership with Baringo county government, the number has increased to 800” he adds.
Maintenance costs for this project are covered by the villagers, who pay for the water they consume. Each household with a connection from the borehole pays a monthly fee of five hundred shillings to the community’s account while those who fetch the commodity from the borehole pay five shillings for a twenty-litres jerrycan.
A drink of water for livestock costs one shilling each for cows and fifty cents each for goats. The funds collected from the project are used to hire a caretaker and carry out repairs when the need arises.
Despite only relying on the sale of goats as their main source of income, residents willingly pay for the water as they consider it more of a blessing than an expense.
“Women are the happiest lot. We now have time to focus on other income-generating activities,” says Mercy Limo as she sits under a mango tree, proudly admiring her quarter-acre farm.
The mother of three became a full-time farmer in August 2020, when the first drop of water reached her home from pipes connected to the borehole. “I got my first mango harvest this year. It was not much, but at least my children were able to enjoy fruits for Christmas. We ate some pawpaw too,” she adds.
Mercy’s small farm is a neat oasis of green in the expansive dry land, with an assortment of green leafy vegetables like kales, Sukuma-wiki and cowpeas. She has also planted some maize and napier grass at the far end of her plot.
She uses water from the borehole to grow her plants and has also opened her home to her immediate neighbours, who fetch the commodity at any time of the day.
In less than two years, Mercy boasts of a steady income of five hundred shillings a day from selling her vegetables to her village folk and nearby schools.
This, she says, has enabled her to assist with household expenses. “I have been approached by two schools which want me to supply them with fruits and vegetables. I plan to expand my farm in order to meet their needs.”
Her success and that of other villagers in Lelen reflect gains in other parts of the country, brought about by the use of solar energy to power boreholes and provide other sustainable solutions.
Transition to clean energy
In his speech to a side meeting at the COP-26 summit on climate change in Glasgow in November 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta told the international community that Kenya was committed and on course to achieving full transition to clean energy such as wind, solar and geothermal by the year 2030.
However, realization of this promise is hampered by the high cost of installation of equipment required to harness these energies.
The initial cost of a solar-powered borehole for a community of about 7,000 people can be as high as 10m Kenyan shillings. This presents a challenge for rural communities to independently cater for such projects.
“Due to its location along the Equator, Kenya enjoys twelve hours of solar. I encourage the government and other stakeholders to make use of this free resource. We should also ensure that only good quality solar equipment is allowed into the country in order to increase access to this type of energy,” adds Wanjala.
This article was supported by the Women In News Social Impact Reporting Initiative (WIN-SIRI).