Sayyid Barghash bin Said Al-Busaid the second Sultan of Zanzibar from 1870 to 1888 is said to be responsible for the building of much of the infrastructure of Stone Town, including piped water, electricity, public baths, a police force, roads, parks, hospital and large administrative buildings such as the Bait el-Ajaib (house of wonders). He was a crafty negotiator and often outwitted diplomats from Britain, America, Germany, France and Portugal by playing one country against the other in a skillful endgame of pre-colonial chess.
In 1875, Barghash acquired a generator to light up his palace and nearby streets. This same generator was purchased in 1908 by Harrali Esmailjee Jeevanjee, a Mombasa-based merchant whose company Mombasa Electric Power and Lighting Company had been given the mandate to provide electricity to the island. In the same year, Clement H.A. Hirtzel started providing electricity to Nairobi under his company Nairobi Power and Lighting Syndicate.
Clement Hirtzel was born on 10 April 1879 in Exeter, Devon England. After obtaining engineering qualifications, he travelled to South Africa and eventually landed in British East Africa in 1904 to try his luck. Engineer McGregor Ross, Director of Public Works from 1905 to 1922 described Hirtzel as a “penniless counter-jumper from the Cape”.
Soon after his arrival Hirtzel obtained a concession for 50 years from the governor, Sir Charles Eliot (he was rather fond of granting generous concessions of land too), to supply Nairobi with electricity. He formed a company known as the Nairobi Power and Lighting Syndicate in 1905 with Charles Udall as Chief Engineer and R.C. Bayldon as managing director.
In November 1906, the company settled on the first fall of Ruiru River as the source of their hydro-electric power. A bungalow was built near the site of the works for the engineer-in-charge James Ernest Bedding and damming of the river commenced.
The Ruiru Dam was built of concrete some 30 feet upstream of the fall below the Fort Hall Road (today’s Thika Road). The main power station, which still stands today, was built on the right bank of the river some 300 yards from the dam and consisted of a steel framework with sides of corrugated iron sheets. The station housed three turbo generators with a combined output of 500 BHP.
In April 1908, the power station started to provide power, initially to commercial areas in Nairobi but after a month, other areas were provided with power and light. The sub-station in Nairobi operated on a 24-hour basis except on Sundays when power was available only between 6am and 6pm.
The power supply was erratic in the early years and many times residents of Nairobi had to resort to paraffin lamps and candles, hence the joke which has persisted up to today for precisely the same reason.
In the meantime, Hirtzel had established a successful motor car and motorcycle business known as Nairobi Motor Garage in Parklands where he lived. He also owned a farm in Limuru.
As the demand for electric power continued to grow, in 1922 the Mombasa Electric Power and Lighting Company and the Nairobi Power and Lighting Syndicate merged to form the East Africa Power and Lighting Company Ltd.(EAP&L) adopting the famous Reddy Kilowatt as its mascot after 1926. In 1924, the Ndula Power Station was commissioned on the Thika River while the Mesco Power Station was commissioned in 1930.
EAP&L expanded outside Kenya in 1932 when it acquired a controlling interest in Tanganyika Electricity Supply Company Ltd (now TANESCO) and later obtaining a generating and supply license in Uganda in 1936, thereby entrenching its presence in the East African region.
However, EAP&L exited Uganda in 1948 when the Uganda Electricity Board was established to take over distribution of electricity, which was a direct consequence of a decision to build the giant Owen Falls Dam in that country.
On 1 February 1954, the Kenya Power Company (KPC) was formed and commissioned to construct the transmission line between Nairobi and Tororo in Uganda, which would transmit power from the Owen Falls Dam, then nearing completion.
KPC was managed by EAP&L under a management contract and that same year EAP&L listed its shares on the newly created Nairobi Stock Exchange (now Nairobi Securities Exchange) becoming one of the very first companies to list on the bourse.
In 1955, the first geothermal exploration of Olkaria area in Naivasha commenced with two unsuccessful wells being dug by 1959.
EAP&L exited Tanzania in 1964 by selling its stake in TANESCO to the Government of Tanzania. In 1983, due to its presence only in Kenya, EAP&L was renamed the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC).
KPC demerged from KPLC in 1997 to form Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and in 2008, the electricity transmission function was carved out of KPLC and transferred to the newly formed Kenya Electricity Transmission Company(KETRACO).
Olkaria eventually started commercial generation of electricity in July 1981 and today accounts for about 20 per cent of the national supply.
However, hydro-generation remains our principal source of supply, but it is threatened by environmental degradation in water catchment areas reducing the flow of water into dams. The discovery of oil offers some hope of relief from the high cost of electricity as do trial tests with wind generation.