Mageta Island

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Mageta Island was our first stop in Kenya, where we started by getting to know users of a solar microgrid managed by SteamaCo, our project partner. This post describes the setting on Mageta.

Lying off the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, Mageta Island stretches out like a shrimp with a skinny tail, about 8km from end to end and not much more than 1km wide at its widest. Its total surface area is around 6.6 square kilometers.

Coming from Nairobi, it’s a bit of a journey. First there is a 1-hour flight on one of Kenya’s relatively-recently established low-cost carriers or the more traditional 8-hour bus ride to Kisumu, the third largest city in the country, situated on the hot and sunny shores of Lake Victoria. From there, it’s another two hours driving on a tarmac road to reach Usenge, a small market town and the launchpoint for the ferry to the island – a bright yellow fiberglass catamaran-style boat that is an American businessman’s most recent local venture. A 45-minute ride across the water, passing the occasional wooden fishing boat, brings you to the first of three ‘ports’, a.k.a. tiny fishing hamlets with a wooden pier. The third such stop is Mahanga Beach, the hub of everything ‘happening’ on the island and the only place with a central power supply.

Disembarking from the ferry requires a jump onto the pier and navigating a few (or more than a few) missing boards, stepping over piles of freshly-caught Nile perch and tilapia and dodging people carrying crates of soda, bags of dried fish and buckets of vegetables back and forth. Before a word is audibly spoken about it, it is evident that fish and fishing shape the ebb and flow of life here.

In an e-mail exchange, Sam Duby, SteamaCo CTO, jokingly suggested that the company “could map the shifting densities of fish populations in Lake Victoria by the shifts in spending patterns across our island sites.” Business people throughout Mahanga Beach echoed his comment: “When the fishing is good, business is good. When the fish catch is down, business also goes down.”

Off the pier, smells of frying fish and cooking fires linger in the air. The ground is hard and dry and covered in an invisible layer of mud dust that rises up as soon as it is disturbed and resolutely attaches itself to whatever has disturbed it. Mabati, or corrugated iron, is the standard roofing material on the mostly mud buildings. At slightly better off businesses, concrete porches welcome the customer, while at the less well-to-do places, wooden shade structures provide at least some respite from the unrelenting intensity of the sun.

Within just a few steps of the pier, a dense cluster of buildings opens into an expanse of fish nets stretched out on the dirt and covered in a shimmering layer of tiny omena and wiu. Women and girls pick over the fish, collecting the larger ones in plastic basins or in piles on the edges of the nets. The ubiquitous white birds of the island tiptoe around, occasionally snatching an unearned treat.

The daily omena catch drying in the sun

Between the sharp edges of low-hanging roofs, a narrow passageway leads from this space to the unlikely apparition of a bright orange box with an array of solar panels on top. This is the SteamaCo microgrid, with 68 lines that provide power to homes and businesses in Mahanga Beach. The lines from the microgrid reach up to 500m from the central point via a secondary distribution box and are only available to people within this range.

Of the 68 lines, about half are used on a daily basis. The lines are divided between homes and businesses, but SteamaCo doesn’t track categorized energy consumption . Most of the buildings in Mahanga Beach are rented, and they change tenants frequently, shifting from home use to business use and back.

A typical electrified home has one to three rooms with a bulb in each room, some kind of music system and in some cases a television. An average home consumes less than 1kWh per day, as home users tend to use the microgrid as an additional energy source to their solar lanterns and solar home systems.

The types of electrified business vary. A common business uses power for phone charging and a few other things – either a large appliance such as a refrigerator or a collection of smaller appliances such as razors or blow dryers in a barber shop or salon; a television, DVD, amp and speakers in a video hall; or a computer for music downloading. An average business consumes from 2-5kWh per day and at peak times can consume as much as 9kWh per day. Most businesses have lines to both the SteamaCo microgrid and to a diesel generator that is the only other centralised power source on the island. Businesses that are not connected to either the microgrid or the generator often have a few of their own solar panels and battery and / or a small generator.

Businesses are clustered in the central market area, along one main dirt throughway and in a number of crooked and haphazard passageways leading off of it. Motorcycle taxis gather under a flowering tree in the centre and blast music as they take off with a passenger.

Music and entertainment are a key part of life in Mahanga Beach. As a fishing community, cash flows can be much higher than in subsistence farming communities, which make up much of mainland Nyanza. The transient fishermen consume copious quantities of alcohol, stumbling around the village at midday harassing people. They watch movies in the video halls and purchase sex from the young women. Businesses aim to appeal to this type of customer by projecting the loudest and latest music.

Women for the most part are busy around their shops in the daytime, rolling out chapati in the morning and frying chips or fish in the afternoon. Scattered market stalls offer a small selection of vegetables and fruits, most brought from off the island, and at night solar lanterns illuminate their offerings.

The village centre is quite dark and much quieter at night time than during the day, with only a few shops lit up. The activity seems to shift from the video halls and streets to the local resort, with music thumping and alcohol flowing until the wee hours of the morning.

Public services are few and far between across the island. A primary school sits slightly inland from the marketplace, near the SteamaCo satellite connection point. When school is open, lights glow through the broken windows as teachers lead review sessions in the evenings. There are two secondary schools on the island, one private and one public. The public one is located a few kilometers along the dirt road toward the centre of the island. The Mahanga Beach clinic is a small building a few hundred meters from the market centre, beyond the reach of the microgrid lines. The hospital is located near Kamongo, in the centre of the island and as such theoretically equally accessible to all the inhabitants.

As the biggest market centre on the island, Mahanga Beach attracts business people from off the island looking for new opportunities. Some, like J.O., who offers the best M-Pesa (mobile money) connection point and a fridge selling cold drinks, are content to run a small and stable business for years. Others, like N.A., manage stable but slowly expanding businesses and have a sharp eye for new opportunities, like selling bags of cold lake water (for drinking) for Ksh10 from a deep freezer that can cool hundreds of bags a day. Still others, like E.O., seem to have money flowing through their fingers – just as quickly out as in – and are continuously experimenting, adding a billiards hall and a betting salon and saving money for investments in public transport vehicles on the mainland.

Between the established business people and the young people attending secondary school, a marked difference exists. With the exception of a select few, the business people tend to see where they are and what is around them and to think largely within those limitations. Their ideas are primarily to expand existing businesses or add another small business of a type that already exists on the island, such as a barber shop or a refrigerator to sell cold drinks. The students on the other hand have heard of much more. They envision a future with Internet connectivity (there is currently very poor mobile network coverage and hardly any data connection) and polytechnical schools and training institutes. They talk about being journalists and media designers in the future and at the very least having printing and copy shops and Internet cafes offering the possibility for income through online work.

SteamaCo also envisions such a future, with a significantly expanded solar microgrid to power much larger devices, such as welders and mills for the local businesspeople. They have placed GSM boosters at some of their other sites and are also exploring new technologies that could open up different communication networks and make the students’ dream of Internet cafes and digital jobs a more realistic future possibility.