While interning at an electrical company in Maasai Mara in 2017, 23-year-old Tracy Kimathi came across mini-grids for the very first time. These are devices that can generate, store and distribute electricity on a small scale by transforming the energy generated from water, solar or coal, to power. As she went about her daily activities in the villages deep within the Mara, Tracy witnessed first hand how the devices had transformed the lives of the residents who had previously had no access to electricity. This sparked in her a desire to invest in energy generation.
Her decision seems to be paying off, as she is among the first set of African energy investors who have been invited to attend the Global Grad Show in Dubai this November. This is the world’s largest gathering where young innovators get to present their design and technology projects.
“I learnt about this show through my colleagues in the industry. The organisers of the event were looking for university students or fresh graduates who had invested in a power project, so I applied and got accepted.
“I am looking forward to exhibiting my 15KW project which is currently in operation in Isiolo to the entire world, and to share ideas with other young innovators,” she says.
But Tracy’s latest achievement did not happen by magic. It came as a result of unstinting, unending work, a quest for perfection, and the determination to make a difference in rural communities.
She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science in 2017 from Kenyatta University and since then, she has been keenly studying issues to do with sustainable development through solar energy.
“I have been an avid follower of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and I am on their mailing list so I am always aware of any forums or workshops that touch on environmental sustainability.
“Through the workshops, I came to know about the Micro Grid Academy, a programme funded by UNEP that offers technical and entrepreneurial training on renewable energy solutions.
When I completed my internship at Hyperteck Electrical Service last year, I applied to MGA and spent eight weeks learning more about mini-grids. Afterwards, I set up Tree_Sea.mals, an organisation that advocates for the use of environment-friendly sources of energy,” she says.
It is during her stint at MGA that she visited Telek in Masai Mara where the use of mini-grids was vastly employed.
“The area around Masai Mara had typical villages with mud houses and no electricity but Telek was different. There were entertainment spots, banks and hotels, and all that was possible because they generated their own electricity. After that visit, I got the assurance that I could successfully execute my plan of building mini-grids for communities with limited energy access,” she says.
After she returned to Nairobi from Telek, she went to the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority offices and sought information on electrification. She asked to be given a list of areas where there is no electricity, and then identified those that met her specifications. She was ready to put the technical skills she had gained during her internship as well as what she had learned at MGA into practice.
“I settled on Dadachabasa village in Isiolo, and with the support of my friends and family, I set out to do a feasibility study to find out whether the residents could afford the power, and if they would be willing to pay for it.
“I used this data to apply to the Tony Elumelu Foundation Fellowship for Young Entrepreneurs. I got it and received funding worth Sh520,000. With this money, I embarked on putting together a one kilowatt (1KW) project in Meru, which I launched in June 2019,” she says.
Tracy is currently working on a new 15KW project in Isiolo.
“Tree_Sea.mals links consumers to the investors. I use the money that the investors put in my company’s account to provide energy for the residents. My company’s key role is to attract investors, and to identify areas in Kenya that can benefit from solar power investment.
“I want to focus on providing electricity locally because most African governments focus on urban areas, leaving the rural village without social amenities. I want to enable locals to make electricity work for them, and also to ensure that they utilise it appropriately.
“Most people use electricity primarily for lighting and charging their phones, but that is not the most productive way to use it. I want to help them achieve economic empowerment. I want everyone to know that they can make money from electricity, and that is why I am investing in mini-grids and cold storage facilities.
Asked whether Africans should embrace solar, Tracy said: “We have abundance of the solar resource in Africa. The developed world is investing heavily in solar and in economies of scale. The more they produce, the cheaper it becomes. We must take solar power very seriously because it is available in almost every part of Africa and it is very efficient.
She has encountered several challenges in the course of her work, but she cites funding and lack of mentorship as the biggest obstacles.
“Many organisations do not want to invest in mentorship programmes for the young employees. Also, there is a very little information about power generation locally, and many young people are unaware of the existing opportunities.
“Another challenge is money. For example, my first project is worth Sh15 million, and not everyone can afford such a huge sum at a go. Getting a good team to work with me was also a big challenge, but I found good employees especially on the finance and technical departments.
So, what is keeping Tracy in this business despite all these challenges? “In the energy sector, just like in any business, the hardest part is starting out. But once you are there, things become easier, and you grow with time.