One warm afternoon in 2015, four aircraft, Cessna caravans, landed at a makeshift airstrip in the Marsabit wilderness, northern Kenya.
Captain James Kariuki manned one of the 12-seater planes belonging to Timbis Air. Together with his colleagues, they had flown a group of investors and engineers to lay the groundwork for construction of the 310MW Lake Turkana wind power plant – the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. The Nairobi-Marsabit flight takes one hour and 40 minutes.
“There was no toilet, no basics, so you can imagine the conditions,” Captain Kariuki recounted.
With no place to buy food, he recalls that they bought a goat from a random herder at $40 (four thousand shillings) who swiftly built a fire under a shrub. The goat meat was roasted and the men had their fill.
Thereafter, the wind farm developers rode in waiting SUV cars through the windswept terrains to the conceived site for the plant, about a 30-minute drive away.
Among the group were two Dutchmen friends, Carlo Van Wageningen and Willem Dolleman, co-founders of the Lake Turkana wind farm. They had conceived the idea of the wind station during one of their sundowner moments on the shores of Lake Turkana.
Fast-forward. Captain Kariuki reckons that since his first trip there, the only thing that has remained the same is the area’s high wind speeds. The open dry fields are ever gusty, perfect for harvesting power from nature.
Unlike the rickety structure in 2015, the airstrip is now better equipped with several stone buildings for travellers to freshen up. Here, the blades cannot be seen and one has to drive about 300 metres northeastern of the airstrip to catch a glimpse of the giant turbines, perched on raised ground. The developers installed 365 turbines, spread out over 40,000 acres of land.
The flights connecting Nairobi and Marsabit don’t come cheap.
A 12-seater Cessna caravan will set you back Sh120,000 ($1,200) per hour and a further Sh10,000 for every hour that the captain waits on the ground. A chopper ride is even costlier at Sh170,000 ($1,700) per hour.
Unlike before, when there were no hospitality structures, visitors now get treated to buffet in a staff mess, resembling an uptown hotel you’d find in Nairobi.
In addition, artisans and engineers working there have decent accommodation facilities, a combination of stone houses and prefabricated containers complete with air conditioners. Hot and windy, the weather in Marsabit can be punishing. Contractors said the weather, alongside the rugged terrain, posed physical and logistical challenges during construction of the plant and the 435km transmission line linking it to the national grid.
Backstory of the wind farm
Beyond clean power, digging into the wind farm’s past reveals a rich account of risk-taking, friendship and foresight.
It all started with sport fishing expeditions, accompanied by sundowners.
Long before the project was conceived, Willem Dolleman, a co-founder of the wind farm, loved sport-fishing at Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake. Sipping cold beer by the dry southern tip of the lake against a soundscape of howling evening gales was exactly his definition of dreamland. It was a getaway indulgence that the career agronomist got a kick out of.
The next time his friend Carlo Van Wageningen was in town he couldn’t wait to take him to the magical landscapes, craters and winds of Turkana.
The year was 1997. That evening, the pair good old friends sat in quietude on the shores of Lake Turkana enjoying sundowner cold beer.
“Why don’t you set up a wind farm here? It’s perfect here, the winds are strong and steady and the area is remote and uninhabited,” Wageningen, a specialist in project development and management, recalled his friend telling him.
Fast-forward. The developers reached a financial close in 2014, more than ten years since the idea was floated. And it wasn’t until late 2018 that the wind station started producing power.
The two dreamers, now considered founding fathers, managed to build a strong business case for the $700 million Lake Turkana wind power station, in the process attracting investors to put their money in the project. There’s a running joke that the wind men ‘sold wind’ to investors.
The wind farm’s investors comprise global heavyweights including UK firm Alydwych – the largest shareholder with a 30.7% stake. KP&P Africa, comprising a team of Dutch individual investors including the founding fathers Wageningen and his friend Dolleman comes in second with a 25.25% stake. Other investors in the wind farm include Danish turbines maker Vestas (12.5%), Danish Climate Fund (Investment Fund for Developing Countries), KLP Norfund Investments AS of Denmark and Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation Ltd.
“The journey has been arduous. From nothing here, to all these around us now, it’s a miracle. It gives me pleasure to see the wind blades rolling and people having jobs, water flowing, children going to schools and roads being passable because of the dream that started with the fishing expedition,” said an emotional Wageningen.
He recalls the first days when he had to sleep in the open fields, with nothing more than a mosquito net, the blue skies above twinkling with stars.
“It was romantic,” he laughs.
Why foreign ownership?
Local firms apparently shied away from investing in Lake Turkana wind plant. While scouting for potential investors some 10 years ago, the developers had approached State-owned power producer KenGen to invest in the project in exchange for equity stake.
The then KenGen managing director Eddy Njoroge declined the offer, questioning the viability of the mega project.
Led by the co-founder Carlo Van Wageningen, the next stop for the developers was at Centum Investments, followed by TransCentury. They were, however, met with the same lukewarm response from company executives.
Meanwhile as the green energy campaign gained momentum globally, renewable projects such as Turkana wind farm found favour among development finance institutions (DFIs) which had no qualms pouring in their money in exchange for shareholding. That explains why Turkana wind farm is owned by foreign investors, who also secured funding from a consortium of 11 foreign banks.
“We are often asked why ownership is 100% foreign. It’s just that the project didn’t excite local firms as much,” said Wageningen.