Terror groups and a lack of jobs have blighted the Kenyan town of Lamu, one of the oldest settlements on the African coast.
A new power station is set to change that.
Kenya has done better than most in providing electricity to its people, expanding the national grid to villages and increasing capacity in country towns.
The problem has not been only with generating the power but connecting it in a country split between cities like Nairobi and Mombasa, and Maasai settlements in the south with no more than a cluster of huts and a herd of cattle.
While a third of the population still live off the grid, Kenya now has one of the highest access rates on the continent and by far the best in East Africa.
A recent discovery of oil in the north could change everything but, for now, the country relies on hydro power from dams, and technology that taps heat from volcanic fissures in the Great Rift Valley.
The region’s largest wind farm on Lake Turkana near the border with Ethiopia has not gone well due to problems moving the kilowatts into pylons and on to consumers. To date wind and solar make up less than two per cent of the total.
But the breakthrough lies in Lamu, one of the oldest towns on the African coast, dating back to the 1400s when Omani traders sailed here in search of gold and slaves.
Lamu town, situated on an island of the same name, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a major draw for tourists with its mix of African and Arab architecture, cobbled streets and some of the best beaches anywhere.
But for young people, prospects have not been good and, after school, they drift to cities in search of work. Like so much of Africa, Lamu is short on power.
Now a new coal-fired generator is set to produce enough for factories and light industry, but not everyone is happy.
Environmental groups and NGOs, mostly from Europe and the USA, insist pollution from the plant could be harmful to health and might affect the island’s only source of income: tourism.
But the plant is set 20 kilometres north of Lamu town, on more than 800 hectares of land, and government insists it will use clean-coal technology to limit emissions. Defenders of the project claim that activists from overseas have paid locals to protest, while others insist there is real opposition.
KenGen, the power company part-owned by the state and responsible for most of Kenya’s electricity, has confirmed that the Lamu Coal-fired Power Station will go ahead.
In a country with mass unemployment, much of it linked to a lack of industry which is, in turn held back by a shortage of electricity, Kenya has a quandary. East of Nairobi, more than a billion tons of coal lies in the ground.
KenGen’s Simon Ngure defended the Lamu plan at an energy summit in Johannesburg in February.
“We in Kenya are best placed to decide how to use our own natural resources,” he said “And we are working with two companies to develop the coal mines”
But Lamu has another problem. The al-Shabaab terror group all-but shut down tourism in 2012 after a series of kidnappings. While the region is now considered safe, attacks on army convoys still happen. And research suggests those drawn to radical Islam are young, male and, most importantly, unemployed.
“We have got to take guns out of the hands of people and put money into those hands,” Mr Ngure said. “Otherwise we will never stop poverty. But to start, there must be electricity. And we must train people for jobs.
“People need roads, railways, development and integrated infrastructure. It all gears towards social stability.”
While mining starts on Kenya’s own deposits, coal for Lamu will be imported from South Africa and from Tanzania whose first coal-fired power station has transformed a region near the southern border with Mozambique. Electricity has allowed Nigeria’s Dangote to set up a cement factory in an area with chronic unemployment.
The World Bank will not fund anything linked to coal, but China and South Africa have come to the table.
Kenyan coal, long left in the ground, is abundant enough to supply more power plants like Lamu.
There will be objections from those who believe wind and solar are the only technology we should use in an era of climate change. But with countries as diverse as China, Poland, India, the USA and Australia still using coal for much of their electricity, can we ask a poor country like Kenya to leave theirs untouched?
Only Africans – and especially those whose lives are blighted by poverty and unemployment – can make the final call.