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Geothermal expansion and Maasai land conflicts in Kenya

The booming geothermal industry in Kenya illustrates how rapid transitions to renewable energy systems can risk generating conflicts if they are not done with sensitivity to the impact of transition on marginalised populations and to local ethnic and political dynamics.

The Kenyan government has a plan to turn Kenya into a mid-income, newly-industrialised country by 2030, powered in large part by geothermal energy from the Great Rift Valley. As this plan is enacted, it is causing conflict with Maasai tribespeople over long-standing land tenure issues, and local concern about dispossession and marginalization.

To avoid future confrontations and tension, the Maasai civil society leaders have  recommend to international funders and Kenya’s state-owned energy companies that geothermal developers undertake projects in consultation with local tribespeople, and share the benefits of developing geothermal power.

Kenya’s energy challenges

At the moment electricity in Kenya is expensive and power outages are common. Until recently the country primarily relied on five hydroelectricity stations situated on the Lower Tana River in the southeast, with a single diesel-fuelled plant providing back-up generation capacity. The system isn’t particularly future proof – climate change will increase rainfall variability, and fuel oil import costs are also expected to fluctuate in the future.

Given these problems, it is apparent why the country is moving quickly to tap its geothermal potential. Geothermal power doesn’t have the variability issues associated with solar, wind or hydropower, and can provide reliable baseload electricity. Kenya has established four geothermal power plants in the Rift Valley, including the world’s largest single-turbine geothermal power plant, and the state-owned Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Geothermal Development Company (GDC) plan to develop two more in the next 2-4 years.

A supportive policy environment has brought in international financing from the World Bank, European Investment Bank, USAID and others, and  made Kenya one of the fastest-growing geothermal markets in the world. Installed geothermal capacity has increased 243% since 2010 to about 800 MWe, and now provides around half of Kenya’s electricity. But that’s still only a fraction of the estimated potential, which could surpass 10,000 MWe spread over 14 high temperature sites in the Rift Valley.

Vision 2030

Kenya’s development plan ‘Vision 2030’ lays out a policy roadmap to becoming a mid-income, industrializing economy in the coming decades. Geothermal power is central to the plan, which seeks to double Kenya’s geothermal electricity generation every few years, from 800 MW currently to 5,000 MW in 2030. [i]

In addition to electricity generation, the Geothermal Development Company is piloting several demonstration projects that use direct heat from geothermal wells. A steam-fed economic zone is planned near Nakuru in the Rift Valley, with projects including a milk processing plant, horticultural greenhouse, laundry and fish farming pond.

Geothermal development and Maasai land rights

Kenya’s plan is in keeping with a rapid transition to a low-carbon growth path, and striving to comply with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But it’s not without its problems. Expansion of the geothermal industry in the Rift Valley has come up against long-standing conflicts with Maasai tribespeople over land appropriation, and given rise to allegations of human rights abuses in relation to relocation and compensation payments.  

Land policy in Kenya is entwined with its colonial past, and its troubled history of using land allocation to consolidate political power. Indigenous communities have brought numerous lawsuits against the government, related to the granting or sale of land titles that conflict with their customary tenure.

In one current case related to geothermal development, Maasai villagers located near geothermal sites allege arbitrary forced evictions, environmental degradation from the geothermal projects and the violation of their constitutional rights. Some representatives from the Maasai communities view recent land acquisitions for geothermal expansion as a continuation of policies that deprive them of land on which their livelihoods depend.

On occasion, this has led to violence. In 2013, latent tensions flared up over one area of geothermal development in Narasha, in the Rift Valley. Under the protection of local police, persons allegedly hired by rival land claimants came armed with chainsaws and clubs, and burned more than 50 Maasai homes, killed livestock and assaulted residents. Police reportedly arrested villagers who tried to intervene.

The incident was allegedly tied to tribal animosities and a land ownership dispute between the Maasai and Kikuyu ethnic groups; the pastoralist inhabitants do not own the title to the land, which could have been sold to Kenya Electricity Generating Company Ltd (KenGen) without the Narasha Maasai community’s consent. This incident led to allegations of corruption and collusion between the Kikuyu and state authorities, reinforcing Maasai concerns about further dispossession and marginalization in areas of geothermal developments.

The World Bank, a funder of geothermal expansion in Kenya, stated that the Maasai families in Narasha had been scheduled for an agreed future relocation from the site of the confrontation, which was in effect being enforced, albeit inappropriately. President Uhuru Kenyatta visited the village after the incident to promise compensation for those affected.

Other social disturbances around geothermal expansion have occurred periodically in the area. Over the past two years there have been protests related to exploration for new geothermal wells, and incidents of localised violence over jobs for Maasai at geothermal facilities. The lack of trust between actors involved in Kenya’s geothermal boom contributes to tensions that have increased the risk of violence. The deployment of armed police to enforce the eviction of Maasai communities is a complaint in the case currently before the High Court.

Safeguards and benefit-sharing

The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Kenya’s Geothermal Development Company (GDC) have safeguards to protect the standards of living of those affected by their projects. However, Maasai civil society leaders report that consultation with tribespeople around the Olkaria geothermal development has been inadequate, that compensation has been irregular or non-existent, and that KenGen hiring practices favour local supporters of geothermal development.

According to Daniel Ntanana Ole Shaa, a Maasai leader relocated from Cultural Centre village, communities have been resettled in ways that damage their livelihoods and cultural practices. Cultural Centre village relied on the tourist economy of Hell’s Gate National Park, he said in a phone interview, but was relocated 14km away with no means of transport other than on foot. Mr. Ole Shaa also says that pastoralists have been moved onto smaller parcels of lower-quality land, and that these changes have generated hardships for most of the community.[ii]

This assessment has been supported by the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, which was approached in October 2014 by Maasai affected by the Olkaria IV expansion. Their petition to the Panel states that ‘resettlement affected their lives and instead of at least restoring their livelihoods, it added impoverishment, intra-community disputes, and health concerns’. Maasai leaders are also pursuing the issue with the European Investment Bank’s Complaints Mechanism and the UK Investment Bank, where a mediation process is underway. The World Bank is expected to publish a report on the matter at the end of October, according to Ben Ole Koissaba, a Maasai community organiser and academic working on this issue.[iii]

Benefit-sharing arrangements could mitigate conflicts between the Maasai and geothermal companies and land titleholders, according to Mr Koissaba. The Maasai want to secure agreements that establish and build the capacity of Maasai institutions, build knowledge and skills, allow them to benefit from job opportunities in the geothermal sector, and establish Maasai-owned companies in partnership with geothermal developers. Involving indigenous experts in development, including through representation on the boards of geothermal companies, is another recommendation put forward by the Maasai petitioners.

Security and sustainability

Tapping Kenya’s geothermal potential could power a positive transition for the country, but even with safeguards in place, the approach taken so far has exacerbated some existing grievances and social tensions. This case demonstrates the potential for the renewables sector to unwittingly drive negative security impacts. Investing in processes to avoid conflicts might mean building in the cost of consultation and negotiation to meet the needs of groups adversely affected by the  shift to renewable energy systems. Doing so while maintaining a rapid pace of implementation is a challenge, but may result in more stable and sustainable projects.

Other countries along the Rift Valley – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda – are enacting similar plans to tap their geothermal potential, and attracting international funding for geothermal development. Further expansion of the industry without sensitivity to the ongoing process of consultation around land use may risk exacerbating and expanding such conflicts.



[i] Vision 2030 plans to generate 1,646 MWe from geothermal by 2017, 2,765 MWe by 2020 and eventually 5,000 MW by 2030.

[ii] Telephone interview with Mr. Ole Shaa, 4 October 2015.

[iii] Telephone interview with Mr. Ole Koissaba, 4 October 2015.

Shiloh Fetzek is a Senior Research Associate with International Alert's Environment, Climate Change and Security programme. She has researched and analysed climate and security linkages at international affairs think tanks since 2007. 


Photo credit: Steam discharge at geothermal power station Olkaria II, Kenya. © frank van der vleuten/