Nairobi, Kenya – The morning scene is increasingly routine for Kenyans. When it’s time to start the day, the power is already out. Somewhere nearby, the shell of a wrecked electrical transformer lies on its side underneath the pole where it had been fixed seven metres off the ground.
The culprit is an unusual one: A vandal who is selling the toxic oil, drawn from the transformer, to chefs who use it for frying food in roadside stalls. Five litres of the viscous, PCB-laden liquid sells for $60. It looks like cooking oil, but lasts much longer, users say.
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Kenyans’ appetite for fried food and cheap frying oil is stalling the country’s urgent efforts to build a modern electrical grid, even as it sows the seeds of a public health crisis, experts say.
And with utility companies reporting similar vandalism across East Africa and as far away as South Africa and Nigeria, the crime spree is becoming another thorn in ambitious plans to electrify Africa.
Sudden blackouts darken businesses and communities across Africa. In a continent where 70 percent of Africans are not yet connected to grid electricity, the World Bank says even those manufacturers who do have a connection lose 56 days a year, on average, to blackouts.
Consumption of PCB-laden chips poses a health risk to Kenyans in a country where health services are already underfunded and doctors are in short supply.
Such power losses can cut revenues as much as 20 percent for businesses that can’t easily use or afford backup generators, World Bank said.
Even companies that don’t experience blackouts are likely to suffer as utilities pass on the price of continually replacing transformers.
In 2012, replacing transformers cost Kenya Power $4m, about seven percent of its net profit, according to Kevin Sang, a communications officer for the company. Umeme Uganda, a power distributor, had to spend $2m this year, said Patrick Mwesigwa, the company’s chief financial officer.
One big problem is that the oil that cools electrical transformers is also great for frying cassava, chips and fish. Other than fuel, thieves tout it as a “remedy” for wounds, and even to make cosmetics, said Tom Muhumuza, a senior project manager for Ferdsult Engineering Services, a Ugandan firm that deals with energy projects.
The copper wire from transformers is sold to fix motors and as scrap metal, which enters the global market and can end up as far away as India and China, Muhumuza said.
Kenya represents the problem in microcosm. On paper, its goals for electrification seem promising: It’s sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth biggest economy, according to the World Bank, with better infrastructure than most. Kenya Power Ltd aims to bring electricity to 70 percent of all Kenyans within five years, up from the current 35 percent.
Kenya has even had some success fighting transformer vandalism. In 2013, 535 transformers were vandalised across the country, a stark drop from 898 in 2011, according to Kenya Power. That may be due to a 2013 law that imposes a minimum 10-year jail sentence on transformer vandals.
Kenya Power has also started mounting transformers in more inaccessible places, such as inside homes and much higher up on poles.
But that’s no comfort to Barnabas Ikahu, who runs a small printing company to supplement his income as a teacher in Kaheho, a town 200km northwest of Nairobi.
Ikahu’s plant churns out calendars, business cards, wedding invitations and photocopying and is typical of the small businesses that are the backbone of Africa’s economic growth. His business stops every time the power goes out.
He’s thinking of buying a generator to keep things going, but that would cost around $300 – enough to erase most of his profit when combined with the costs of generator fuel.
Even generators aren’t a possibility for Nderitu Miano, a welder based 30km away from Kaheho, because the machines he uses to fix farm equipment or car parts suck more power than he can get from the type of small generator he could afford.
When the power goes out, “everything stops”, he said. Customers, many of whom don’t have electricity at all, don’t understand why he can’t get their work done.
Within hours of the power going out, transformer oil can end up on the street, where it creates another health and environmental problem because it contains highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The United States banned PCBs in 1979.
“Consumption of PCB-laden chips poses a health risk to Kenyans in a country where health services are already underfunded and doctors are in short supply,” said Dr Esther Maina a biochemist at the University of Nairobi. But use of the oil is so widespread that she, herself, got sick from it when she bought chips at a roadside stand.
Kenya Power, the firm that distributes power in Kenya, is now thinking about building transformers that don’t use oil. Such transformers are not widely used and cost about half as much as ones that do use oil.
A version of this story first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation news service.