Lights Out

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Residents of Kenya's capital Nairobi have been confronted with an unusual sight on the city's streets recently: cows. With Kenya in the grip of one of the worst droughts in living memory, cattle herders from the Masai and Samburu tribes are driving their animals into the city in search of food and water. Cattle have grazed in Nairobi during previous droughts but few people can remember them in such numbers or so close to the city center. "At first people were shocked to see all these cows blocking the roads," says receptionist Anne Thairu, who has encountered the beasts on her way to work. "But the cows have to eat somewhere. It's an indication of how bad things really are."

Things may never have been worse. Kenya used to have one of Africa's strongest economies. But years of government corruption and mismanagement have taken their toll. The drought, which the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization recently blamed for "starvation-related deaths," is exacerbating the economic downturn, especially in the manufacturing and tourism sectors. The government concedes that more than half of Kenyans now live in poverty, up by over 10% in a decade. Even Kenyans lucky enough to live in houses are now surviving on as little as two hours of electricity a day and have water just a few days a week. Says Kwame Owino, a research officer with Kenya's Institute of Economic Affairs: "If it gets any worse than this we're likely to spiral into permanent stagnation."

The biggest economic problem is the shortage of electrical power. The government blames the failure of the rains for the past two years, but critics point to poor planning, corruption, and even national pride as reasons for the power failures and the crises that stem from them. Badly needed reforms and new power plants were forgotten through most of the 1990s as the Kenyan government and donors squabbled over government spending. Demand for power is growing at nearly 5% a year but even when its plants are working to full capacity Kenya struggles to supply the country's needs. And despite huge potential for geothermal power generation, more than two-thirds of Kenya's power comes from five hydroelectric dams on a single river, the Tana. Kenya has balked at buying more than a tiny percentage of its power from neighboring Uganda, in part because of ill-placed pride.

The Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC), which Kenyans now call Kenya Paraffin, Lamps and Candles, says it will buy generators to ease rationing in big cities and is talking to Uganda about increasing its supply. But such measures may come too late for people like Agnes Mwihaki, one of a small group of successful Nairobi fashion designers. Mwihaki has cut staff hours and is thinking about opening her city shop just a few days a week. "It's getting hard to survive," says Mwihaki. "I'm looking for another job something that will get me regular money." Other small businesses, especially the many carpenters, welders, barbers and mechanics who work from roadside shacks, are closing. Kenya's General Motors assembly plant, like many other large companies, asks its workers to come in when it knows it will have power, even if it's a Sunday.

A glimmer of hope came two weeks ago when the International Monetary Fund announced it would release $198 million in loans following a three-year freeze because of concern over corruption. The World Bank followed suit last week and will lend a further $150 million. Bilateral aid will follow. The donors have attached a long list of conditions to the money, including forcing public officials to declare their wealth and a requirement that Kenya's Central Bank report its balance sheet every week. Still, some Kenyans remain skeptical about how much of the money will reach the targeted projects: health, education and poverty reduction. "We've seen how this government operates," says the Institute of Economic Affairs' Owino. "When it gets the money it spends it badly. Then when it runs out it suddenly starts talking about fiscal responsibility so it can get some more."

A sustainable revival will take more than just outside help. "We've got to start fixing things for ourselves," says receptionist Thairu. But with the November rains forecast to fail for the third year in a row, that may be harder than ever to do.