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David Soler Crespo
, Assistant of research of the Navarra Center for International Development (ICS-University of Navarra)

A dark house is not a home

Power outages in Kenya are back this weekend. And it happens from average six times a month. But blackouts are greater in poor neighborhoods, according to a study by the University of Navarra, and affect everything in life, even having a refrigerator.

Fri, 15 May 2020 17:11:00 +0000 Published in Planeta Futuro (El País)

In the morning you get up, open the fridge and grab a piece of sliced bread to make some toast and milk for your coffee. You put the bread in the toaster, the milk in the microwave to heat it up and turn on the TV to have breakfast watching the morning news. In Kibera, Joe gets up when he leaves the house, goes to the nearest market and buys the milk and bread he needs for the day. The next day, he repeats. And the next, again. All if he's got the money the day before so he can have breakfast.

Joe lives alone in Ayany Estate, one of the neighborhoods of Kibera, the largest settlement in the Kenyan capital. At average in his thirties, he does not live much at home. He goes there to sleep and eat, although many days he does so outside. In his small home he has no refrigerator or television, so daily visits to the market to buy food are a must. So are his weekend trips to San Siro and Wembley, two venues named after European stadiums that broadcast the world's best soccer matches. There he meets up with friends and pays 50 shillings to get in and watch his esteemed Manchester United.

Like Joe, many Kenyans do not have access to a refrigerator or television in their own home. Beyond the cost of these appliances, access to a reliable electricity source also determines the likelihood of having these facilities in a household.

Despite efforts and investments to ensure access to electricity for the population in sub-Saharan Africa, half of the population still has no connection at home, a total of 602 million people in 2018. The International Energy Agency forecasts that, by 2040, 700 million more sub-Saharan Africans will need light in their homes.

In Kenya, the results on paper are not the same as in reality. The data shows that 80% of households in the country have access to electricity. But to what subject connection? Power goes out for 420 hours in the country in just one year, which means that Kenyans suffer from average more than six power outages per month.

Despite the efforts and investments in ensuring electricity supply to the population in Kenya, the results on paper are not the same as in reality. The data shows that 80% of households in the country have access, but to what subject connection? Power is cut for 420 hours in Kenya in just one year, which means that Kenyans suffer from average more than six power outages per month.

These power outages have a direct effect on household electricity connection. researcher Raul Bajo-Buenestado of the Navarra Center for International Development has found in his study The Effect of Blackouts on Households' Electrification Status: evidence from Kenya - with data of 14,000 Kenyan households - that in neighborhoods where blackouts are more frequent there is up to 15% more likelihood of having no electricity at home. Why have electricity if it is constantly going out?

The author's goal is to look beyond the official data and look for the reality behind it. "Electrical connection per se has no intrinsic value, but is a necessary good to provide some benefits to a household such as access to appliances or health benefits," he asserts.

The problem, according to researcher, is that the governments of many countries have preferred to check the box of form rather than maintain a quality standard: "They have focused on making sure that more or less a cable reaches the majority without regard for the service provided," says Bajo-Buenestado. "Quality is essential, otherwise who is going to spend the money to put an electrical connection in your house? Or worse, who's going to buy appliances like a refrigerator, where your food rots if the power goes out?" In Nairobi's wealthy Central Business District neighborhood, advertisements advertise refrigerators that keep cold for up to ten hours after a power outage.

The research sample found that households that experience more outages than normal are up to 33% less likely to have such an appliance and up to 53% less likely to have a television than those that do not experience outages.

The frequency of outages varies by neighborhood. The settlements of Kibera and Mathare, two of the poorest parts of the city, suffer the most in Nairobi, while houses in the wealthy neighborhoods of Gigiri or the Central Business District mentioned above suffer the least.

These outages can have greater side effects than simply having to go out for food or not being able to watch a movie at home. Several scientific programs of study have shown that having a refrigerator in the home increases the overall well-being of a country by increasing food security and reducing the incidence of stomach illnesses. Meanwhile, owning a television has been associated by other researchers with greater empowerment of women and less acceptance of gender-based violence.

Research such as this shows the need to reconsider how to measure whether or not a household has electricity just because it has a connection. Simply having it does not guarantee that it will be used, and therefore governments and institutions should take into account the reliability of the infrastructure when measuring access to electricity. If you can't turn on a lamp, open the fridge or plug in the TV without the power going out, what's the point of having it?