The Energy Poverty Challenge: What it’s like to live with unreliable power in Kenya

ONE is inviting friends and supporters to share ideas on how to provide energy for the world’s poorest people for our Energy Poverty Challenge. In this piece, Janet MacFarlane, a ONE member from Michigan, talks about her family’s experience living on the Kenyan coast, where electricity is unreliable.


Earlier this year, my family and I packed up our bags and moved to the Kenyan coast for six months so that my husband could do research for his Fulbright scholarship. Living in Kenya is not easy, and one of the first things our family had to adapt to was intermittent electricity.

When we first arrived on the coast in January, we would lose power at least once a week, sometimes for 12 or more hours. When the power goes out, Kenyan people say, “Potea!” meaning “lost” in Kiswahili -– and I’ve started to say it, too.

As a result, we’ve learned how to live with unreliable power. If I am using the computer for a homeschooling lesson with my children and the power goes out, we change gears and do something else, like enjoy an impromptu field trip to the beach.

If the power goes out after dark, we’ll use our LED camp lanterns or run the generator a short while before bed. The kids know what to do, too. They usually remember to keep the refrigerator shut while they contemplate what they want to eat. And when I go shopping for the family, I usually buy fresh fish and meat on the day I am going to eat it, so it’s not at risk of being spoiled in the freezer if the power goes out. It is hardest when the electricity goes out at night when we are asleep. The ceiling fans stop spinning and the heat wakes us up.

My experience living in Kenya has inspired me to think a lot about energy, and what we can do to bring it to the poorest places in the world. Here in Kenya, the sun is strong, and harnessing its power seems so logical. Simple things like small portable lights powered by solar energy would go a long way in brightening up the homes of many people, especially for those who don’t have access to electricity. Most of the power in Kenya is generated through hydro-electricity, a source which is highly dependent on rain and water availability. But I think solar power, geothermal and other alternatives should be supported and made accessible. These efforts would go a long way in improving the quality of life in Kenya.

The electricity may be back on in my house in Kenya for now, but for many in Kenya, there will be no electricity.

Do you have an opinion on how to solve the energy poverty challenge? If so, ONE wants to hear from you -– check out our Energy Poverty Challenge blog post to contribute to the discussion and find out more. Or, tweet your ideas to us using the hashtag #energy4all and #myenergyidea.