Why community engagement is key in energy projects

To successfully implement an energy project in Kenya, comprehensive engagement with local communities is of paramount importance. As one of the stakeholders, local communities are, arguably, the most affected whenever a power project is implemented.

They lose their land, their lives are uprooted, their livelihoods disrupted and their movements restricted. This is besides the disturbances, pollution and other nuisances they will be forced to endure on a daily basis.

Having a comprehensive community engagement policy in place will go a long way to reduce the project’s risk profile and avoid disputes, conflicts and legal entanglements.

The reduction in risk profile means securing funding on competitive terms is possible. Minimal disputes and avoidance of litigation means the project will not face unnecessary delays and risk running out of funds.

In Kenya, land issues are particularly sensitive. Local news is replete with stories of demonstrations, protests and court cases whenever there is an energy or infrastructural project taking place.

One defining characteristic of these stories is a decry by local communities of a lack of meaningful engagement with them. They protest of being tricked out of their land.

These protests sometimes deteriorate to dangerous situations leading to destruction of property and loss of life.

Delays in construction of a transmission line for the evacuation of power from Lake Turkana Wind Power project was due to mainly communities along the line refusing to allow the line to pass through their land.

Untangling this mess has so far cost the government a whopping €85.6 million in compensation to the Lake Turkana Wind Power company.

Kenyans had to wait for four more years to benefit from that power. Had there been a proper community engagement strategy in place, this costly extra expense would not have been incurred.

A comparatively worse example of what happens when the local community is not well consulted is the ill-fated Kinangop Wind Park. Local landowners and farmers violently opposed the Sh15 billion 60MW project.

The farmers had concerns and fears which they felt were not being adequately addressed. The landowners felt cheated out of their land.

The company might have been engaging the community on good faith but a lack of comprehensive, coherent and consistent consultation strategy at play made them come across as dishonest.

They were eventually forced to cancel the project after their funds were depleted. In the process, they lost substantial investment on the ground running into billions of shillings.

Sacrificing the time it would have taken them to get free, prior and informed consent from the landowners and farmers for expediency cost them dearly.

So important is community engagement that it is enshrined in our various national and county laws. It is a constitutional requirement. Parts of IFC’s performance standards and ILO’s conventions insist on there being a constant engagement with the community.

The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) is an international association that promotes the inclusion of the public in decision making. It has seven core values that should be used as guiding principles when coming up with a community engagement roadmap.

Steps of community engagement that need to be followed include: inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. These steps should be incorporated in each stage of the project; from its initial feasibility stage right to its construction, operation and maintenance. The community should be deliberately engaged and treated as valuable stakeholders of the project. Getting them on board should be done in an honest, open manner devoid of threats, trickery and intimidation. There should also be an acceptable grievance resolution mechanism in place to handle disagreements that crop up. Otherwise, the project will be another disaster waiting to happen.

First published in Business Daily.

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