In the Mukuru Kayaba neighborhood of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, residents rely on illegal electricity connections to provide lighting for their homes.
Wires are placed under the ground, through walls, and over roofs to connect shacks.
The distribution is done by organized gangs. They collect fees from residents and businesses through well-run extortion rings.
Electricity utility Kenya Power staff fear to venture into the slums for fear of attacks by the gangs.
Sometimes they collude with the gangs by sharing a percentage of the extortion proceeds. Security services and local leaders too have been implicated.
Households are made to pay between $2 and $4 per month for the electricity while business owners part with between $6 and $8 monthly.
The cartels are so powerful that they can deny residents supply for days if they fail to pay.
“If you look at our living conditions you will definitely see that at times we may not be in a position to pay for the electricity,” said one resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of victimization.
But the illegal connections, on top of providing cheap electricity to residents, are also a death trap. When unsuspecting children and visitors stumble onto them, they are shocked to their death.
Kenya Power revealed that 345 people have died from electrocution in the slum in the last three years.
The live wires are commonly brought down by rain and high winds. Others fall due to crumbling structures.
“For instance, there is an elderly man who was killed by electricity last year after the rains. The way these electrical connections are done, like the way this pole is already rotten when it heavily rains it breaks and lands on the rooftop. So when the old man was getting out of the gate he touched the rod and that’s how he was electrocuted to death,” said a resident.
Kenya Power has announced an operation to tear down irregular connections in the country. If they succeed, they would have trimmed the influence of the gangs, but also in cutting off a resource needed by Kenya’s poor to improve their lives.