When a Chinese firm came up with a massive investment to generate biomass from the obnoxious Mathenge (Prosopis) tree in Marigat, Baringo County in 2014, residents were upbeat that a plant, which had caused them untold suffering, would be made to pay through cash generation.
Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Limited injected more than Sh2.2 billion for the setting up of a factory that would have seen more than 8MW of electricity produced.
When the Smart Company team toured the factory last week, all was silent, a far cry from our tour in the past where we found engineers on test runs.
The project was expected to roar into life in December 2014 but smoke is yet to start wafting from the site.
Residents from Baringo South Sub-county who had started supplying raw materials to the factory are now a disillusioned lot.
“When the factory was opened, we were hopeful that our economic livelihoods would be transformed. We had in the past resorted to using the Mathenge tree to burn charcoal to make ends meet. We have gone back to the venture but unscrupulous businessmen are taking advantage of us,” said Philip Arusei a resident of Ilng’arua.
Residents had already started supplying the tree to the factory with a kilogramme fetching at Sh1.60.
They had even organised themselves in seven community based organisations where they were being paid for their produce on delivery.
Some of the tree growing areas in Baringo South that would have benefitted from the project include: Ilng’arua,Ng’ambo, Salabani, Loropil, Kiserian ,Ilchamus, Eldume, Sandai, Loboi and Kapkuikui which has more than 5,000 residents.
In an earlier interview, Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Limited Managing Director Yash Krishna was upbeat that the factory would have been the most effective way to benefit them.
“This is very positive project to Baringo County. We will employ gasification technology, which is eco-friendly as there will be no poisonous fumes being omitted to the environment,” Mr Krishna told said then.
The ambitious project would have been one of its kind in Kenya.
In the arrangement, what the residents were required to do was to provide cut trees at various collection points.
Though Mr Krishna was not available for comment last week, it is widely believed that lack of the raw material is one of the major factors that have contributed to stalling of the project.
When fully operational, the factory would have needed at least 80,000 tonnes of the tree every year to run it but the tree is almost diminished now thanks to over harvesting. The project would have employed over 100 people.
Owing to unregulated charcoal prices, unscrupulous middlemen from far towns are now having a field day exploiting residents by buying their charcoal at throw away prices then making a kill.
Political interference has also been cited as one factor which has contributed to the collapse of the project with members of the minority Ilchamus community demonstrating recently.
According to Mr Amos Olempaka, a local human rights activist, the community where a huge chunk of the tree grows was short changed in identifying where the project was located adding that it ought to have been set up in Ng’ambo as opposed to Marigat.
“Cummins website shows that the factory is built at Ng’ambo but it is now situated in Marigat. We were not consulted on the relocation of the company and we feel that the project was hijacked by the political class against the agreement made by the community,” alleged Mr Olempaka.
But Mr Krishna said that the power company reached an agreement to relocate the project with the national and county government of Baringo after carrying out Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and those protesting over the same were doing so selfishsly.
“Our assessment established that Ng’ambo area is prone to floods which would have posed as big threat to the multi-billion project forcing us to relocate.
Besides being situated near the main road, the current site is near a national grid which will make it easy for us to supply the electricity,”Mr Krishna told the Nation.
As an exotic tree, the Mathenge tree which is scientifically referred to as Prosopis Julifora was introduced several years ago to curb desertification and provide fuel in ASALs but has now become an invasive weed now occupying an area of over 600 Km2 in over six counties in ASALs regions.