Davis Chirchir: Brief dazzle of a tech showman

Davis Chirchir takes the oath of office
during his swearing in ceremony at State
House, Nairobi.

The Jubilee campaign that propelled Uhuru Kenyatta to the presidency was remarkable in many ways, the most striking of which, arguably, was its sensational projection of its leadership as youthful, savvy, and digital.
Its competitors were thereby cast as older, analogue, and more or less clumsy and not prepared for the brave new world of technology, and a millennial generation fast coming of age.

It was this sensational characterisation that lent Jubilee the appeal that proved to be a decisive edge in mobilising the younger voting demographic. In power, Jubilee took trouble to stay true to this acquired and charming description, and a lot of its signal interventions visibly aligned government services and activities with information and communication technology (ICT). Government websites went up and many ministries, departments, and agencies found themselves in the uncharted territory of new media. Huduma Centres sprouted all over the country as government services were taken online and records digitised.

It was natural, therefore, that those government executives who proved fluent in the ways of technology would become celebrities in their own right, and many members of the Cabinet did their best to keep up with the new culture. At 6’4’’, Davis Chirchir literally towered over many of his colleagues in this respect.

However, it is his being totally at ease with all things technological, not just in deployment, but also in understanding how they function, that made him a star of sorts. Ever armed with an iPad and MontBlanc portfolio, Chirchir was always eager to present all sorts of data, in graphical and other formats, and to explain what they meant.

Chirchir had an additional facility; confident articulation and an easy, almost insouciant command of statistics, mathematics, and computing concepts and vocabulary. The sum total of this was that he was able to comfortably engage all stakeholders regardless of depth and intricacy of subject matter, and to rise to the most rarefied conceptual stratospheres as well as plumb the most fundamental depths of foundational material.

He was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Energy and Petroleum on April 25, 2013. This ministry had had its share of superstar ministers before Chirchir, including Raila Odinga. It had also had more staid, workmanlike leaders. The key denominator of their perceived power was the reach of the impact of the ministry on everyday life in Kenya.

Electricity supply fell under it, as did its politics. Fuel products, including petrol, diesel, and kerosene, also fell under this ministry. Geopolitical dramas and their impact on barrel prices were transmitted instantaneously into every Kenyan household in the form of shortages and price hikes. Fluctuations in the water levels in the hydroelectric dams, as well as the striking of new geothermal wells, similarly struck at the heart of macro-and microeconomic prospects.

Power generation and transmission had proven to be politically significant affairs. Politicians seduced voters by promising electric power connections, and their rivals subsequently sent them home by harping on failure to deliver the power.

Petroleum exploration was looked upon as the silver bullet that would relieve Kenyans of the high cost of living by driving and keeping prices down. Through relentless conditioning, Kenyans had become reflexively aware of the connection between the cost of energy and the cost of living, from fares to the price of food and everything in between.

They had also become aware that by virtue of its reach the energy sector commanded colossal revenues, which made it monumentally attractive to carpetbaggers, wheeler-dealers, and assorted shadowy operators. The Ministry of Energy was the domicile of several spectacular scandals involving tens and hundreds of billions of shillings.

Lack of transparency and weak legal frameworks, combined with a sophisticated international operating environment, had enabled foreign and local parties to commit Kenyan tax revenues to dubious schemes that provided no returns. Energy sector contracts were inevitably controversial, be it in terms of parties, sums, or durations involved.

The Energy ministry could, therefore, be said to be highly visible with serious potential to engulf a Cabinet executive in serious legal and political trouble. But under Jubilee, it was going to be that and more.

Chirchir took up the leadership of the Ministry of Energy in time for Jubilee to launch and implement unprecedented ambitious expansion in every important dimension of the sector. It had pledges to connect all Kenyan households to electric power. At that time, only 2.5 million households enjoyed the privilege.

The government had also pledged to double the geothermal power generating capacity, rehabilitate hydro power plants, invest in wind and solar power, and ensure that all parts of the country that were classified as off-grid were brought into the system. Commercially viable oil deposits had been struck in Turkana county, and extraction required the construction of oil pipelines and a crude refinery. The oil products pipeline was also overdue for expansion to distribute a greater variety of products and reach more parts of the country.

Chirchir took up the daunting assignment with gusto and panache. His technical fluency empowered his ministry staff and reassured sectoral stakeholders. He was reputed to maintain up-to-date graphical representations of all the salient works his ministry’s departments and agencies were undertaking, and his visitors would be able to track developments throughout the country, thanks to his superb technical presentation skills.

Confiden and articulate, Chirchir also distinguished himself with an impeccable sense of occasion and penchant for the spectacular. The inevitable groundbreaking, official launch, and such other events that took place in his ministry in their dozens were ample opportunities for Chirchir to stage grand state ceremonies and offer a precious platform for the President to expound his developmental politics. The memorable presidential events outside state visits and public holidays are arguably Ministry of Energy functions, and that is chiefly due to Chirchir’s masterful stewardship.
The CS’s technical master accrued from decades of diligent application. He graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Physics in 1985. Preparatory to launching a career in the telecommunications sector, Chirchir proceeded to complete a Post-Graduate Diploma in Tele-traffic Engineering at the KP&TC Central Training School in Mbagathi, Nairobi.

He thereafter joined the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (KP&TC) to work in the technical department. In this vast conglomerate service and regulatory functions, Chirchir rapidly rose to become the director of technical services. At the advent of liberalisation, when the government broke up the conglomerate to facilitate divestiture and privatisation, the corporation splintered into Telkom, whose mobile telecommunications subsidiary was Safaricom, Postal Corporation of Kenya, and Communications Commission of Kenya, now Communications Authority.

Chirchir remained with Telkom as the director of technical services, managing and coordinating the deregulation and liberalisation of telecommunications and postal infrastructure services in the country. He helped develop the 1997 Postal and Telecommunication policy statement and the Kenya Communications Act, 1998, which repealed the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Act, CAP 411, and abolished the monopoly of the KP&TC. Chirchir also worked in the process that coordinated the sale of the government stake of 49 per cent to a strategic equity participant.
He thereafter joined the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), the predecessor of Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as a commissioner between 2009 and 2011.

Here, he acquired skills and experience in large-scale corporate management, strategy development, policy making, and governance, which combined his acquired technical experience with election management on a nationwide level. He also oversaw the introduction and development of several ICTs, including biometric identification of voters, electronic transmission of results, and other modern ICT applications that have transformed election management.
When his term expired after the IIEC was disbanded, Chirchir devoted his capabilities to political party development and management. Among the founders of the United Republican Party (URP), the party’s strong technological orientation was a legacy of Chirchir’s.

When URP merged with The National Alliance to form the Jubilee coalition, Chirchir receded behind the scenes to manage election operations, and was later appointed the chief agent of the presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta. It may be said that his interview for his job as Cabinet secretary was longer than most.

In his State of the Nation address in March 2015, President Kenyatta resolved to imbue the war on corruption with new impetus by purging his government of elements considered to be tainted with graft. He therefore called upon his officers who had been mentioned in scandals or against whom there existed allegations of corruption to step aside until they were cleared of wrongdoing. Kenyatta directed that investigation of the allegations against them be completed within 60 days. Davis Chirchir was named as having been implicated in a procurement scandal as a commissioner with IIEC. He relinquished his Cabinet position and was replaced in November 2015 without any report, adverse or favourable, having been furnished. Kenyatta had constructively terminated a shining star in his Cabinet. In his relatively brief tenure, Chirchir made off-the-beat places national focal points: Olkaria, Turkana, Ngamia, Hoima, Lokichar, Loyangalani and many others became synonymous with transformational events as Chirchir charged relentlessly forth under his campaign, memorably tagged “Powering Freedom”.

The interventions he pursued in these celebrated excursions were intended to advance Kenya’s resource sustainability and low-cost energy supply leadership. They encapsulated energy development, delivery, and its effective utilisation in order to strategically position and differentiate the country as a low-cost destination for global firms’ sustainable competitive advantage.

During his short stay in the Cabinet, he nevertheless scored significant, if not impressive, accomplishments. They include massive boosting of national energy self-sufficiency through the development and delivery of 280 megawatts of geothermal power to the national grid. This was accompanied by the development of the 400 kilovolt Olkaria-Mombasa transmission infrastructure, which saved consumers Ksh1.7 billion annually in transmission losses.

The overall quality and reliability of electricity supply throughout the country was also improved. Furthermore, rural electrification was expanded and complemented with an aggressive last-mile component to connect power to nearly six million additional households. Chirchir’s tenure also facilitated power exchange with neighbouring countries to support the development of regional trade in electricity, beginning with the development and provision of links.

The government’s participation in geothermal risk mitigation and investment in formative development culminated in the reduction of electricity costs to consumers. In 2014, Kenya was in the global top three suppliers of clean green energy and to date remains in the top 10 on account of the geothermal development and utilisation breakthroughs.
The state corporation in charge of electricity generation, KenGen, saved the economy Ksh17.85 billion through discounts of US cents 3.8 per kilowatt/hour to electricity consumers. This saving was due in large part to the availability of Ksh519 billion in concessional funding for planned capital projects arising from a rights issue that was made possible when Chirchir oversaw the restructuring of Ksh19.46 billion debt off-balance sheet by converting it to equity.

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