Energy for Growth Hub
Blog May 07, 2024

Kenya’s Promotion to the Big Leagues

What to expect on climate and energy ahead of President Ruto’s State Visit
Shaping Energy Transitions

When Kenyan President William Ruto arrives in Washington on May 23, he and President Biden will engage in the performative diplomatic pageantry known as a State Visit. They and their wives will dress up and have their pictures taken. The White House will host a fancy dinner. Gifts will be exchanged. Laudatory (and tightly scripted) statements will be made about the strength and importance of the Kenya-US relationship. But this visit could also presage a new, mutually beneficial partnership with Africa on climate and energy – if the political theater is accompanied by a concrete plan for long-term bilateral collaboration.

African countries don’t often rise to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. When they do, the US approach can often seem paternalistic. The US dispenses diplomatic attention like a reward for good behavior, while the agenda focuses narrowly on US security interests and development assistance. That’s no longer good enough — if it ever was.

Much has changed for Kenya in the two decades since President George W. Bush hosted Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki in 2003, when the agenda was dominated by anti-terrorism and aid. Kenya is now a bonafide regional powerhouse, its GDP per capita has grown by nearly a factor of 5, and the country recently ascended into middle-income status. The agenda for Ruto’s visit mirrors this shift. Top-line billing goes to trade and investment, technological innovation, and climate and clean energy.

Still, much needs to happen behind the scenes to ensure substantive outcomes. Right now, US agencies are scrambling to figure out what they can say, announce, or promise — and what messages they want to share with Ruto, both publicly and privately.

What to expect from the Kenyan President

Foreign policy professionals tasked with backroom planning for this State Visit  — and the journalists covering the event — should watch for signs of meaningful US-Kenya cooperation on climate and energy. Here’s what we expect

  • Ruto will push his grand vision for African climate leadership… Ruto has already positioned himself as a leading voice for the entire continent on climate issues. He heads the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change, and he launched the Accelerated Partnership for Renewables in Africa at the first Africa Climate Summit. He is calling for a fundamental rewriting of Africa’s place in climate policy: from a victim to a driver of solutions. He sees the continent as a trading and industrial partner for global decarbonization. He wants Africa — and Kenya in particular — to be a prime destination for all kinds of climate investment. From carbon markets to bitcoin mining and green hydrogen, Ruto is positioning Kenya as a hub.
  • …but the biggest thing being cleaned up by Ruto’s climate policy might be his own reputation… Being invited to Washington for a State Visit is a crowning moment of sorts for President Ruto, marking how far he has come since facing charges in the International Criminal Court a mere decade ago. Today, he is a certified global climate champion, named by Time Magazine last year as one of the world’s 100 most influential people shaping climate action. This visit is an opportunity for Ruto to cement that reputation and celebrate his own rising celebrity.
  • … even as Kenyans back home might roll their eyes. While Ruto promenades on the global stage, discontent is growing back in Nairobi. The number one priority for everyday Kenyans right now is easing the unbearable cost of living — not securing more climate finance promises or building a green hydrogen economy. Many see Ruto’s focus on regional and international issues as a distraction from domestic priorities.

What US officials should keep in mind

  • Ruto’s climate grandstanding presents the US with a real opportunity… Ruto’s narrative — which positions Africa as a partner to rich countries, a destination for green finance, and a contributor to global decarbonization — is appealing to the White House, which desperately wants a new global narrative on climate finance. Decades of COP negotiations have yielded relatively little, continuously bogged down in emotional battles between rich and poor. Ruto’s reframing could open up constructive dialogues and create space for the US to contribute the types of green investment it’s most primed to provide, including loans for private sector-led projects in digital technology and energy.
  • …but only if the US can deliver real resources. The US doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to following through on climate commitments, particularly to Africa. And just last year, President Biden reneged on his promise to visit Africa — further seeding doubts about US intentions. But this State Visit is an opportunity to tackle climate cooperation bilaterally, with potential for clear benefits to both countries. Instead of sprinkling technical assistance and loan guarantees for clean energy across fifty African countries, the US should work with its closest African allies to craft investment packages that meet a country’s specific needs. Doing this would tap the exact kinds of assistance the US is actually good at providing — and would also benefit US interests in global energy security and pushing US clean tech.
  • A formal bilateral approach would help… For Kenya, this could mean formalizing a new bilateral relationship in the mold of the longstanding US-India energy partnership, which was launched in 2005 to advance mutual energy interests and has evolved over time to meet changing needs. Such a partnership should be grounded in robust analysis of what’s actually needed, strong financial tools, and two-way accountability. (We have an idea for how to do it!)
  • … if the US puts people first. In crafting energy and climate cooperation with Kenya, the US must ensure as much funding as possible reaches people on the ground, rather than simply enriching elites, bolstering Ruto’s global reputation, or inflating American climate credentials. Achieving this will require ensuring full transparency of all funding and investment flows (for example through open contracting in the power sector), and prioritizing investments into sectors that have the highest potential to create jobs and economic opportunities rather than a myopic focus on emissions reductions. To take just one example: investing in grid infrastructure to improve power reliability will do far more for Kenyan firms than a flashy high-risk bet on green hydrogen.

Yes, State Visits are mostly pomp. But they have one big benefit, particularly for a country that is not often at the top of the US foreign policy agenda: they force the entire apparatus of the US government to focus, even if only momentarily, on one country. With Kenya’s growing importance both within Africa and globally, this State Visit presents a real chance for the US to retool its approach to African countries, trading performative paternalism for substantive partnership.