The tarmacking of the 748-kilometer road connecting Isiolo, Wajir and Mandera will be the biggest game changer for the North Eastern Counties of Kenya, the biggest infrastructure project undertaken in the region since independence in 1963.
The World Bank- Government of Kenya funded project will go a long way in opening up a region that is historically underserved and is performing below national average on development indicators.
It is a milestone for the World Bank which has historically funded projects biasedly along the railway line reinforcing the argument of marginalization of the North Eastern region despite profiling the area as abjectly poor.
Poverty levels in North Eastern are extremely high at 70%, compared to 45% national average, this largely due to 50 years of neglect. The road networks are poor though marked improvement has been seen since the advent of devolution in 2013. Electricity access is at 7% and most households experience water stress due to the extreme dry conditions.
The region is characteristically arid or semi-arid and frequent droughts create vulnerabilities for the population, 90 per cent of whom rely on livestock whose potential has not been exploited because of poor infrastructure.
Governors Ali Roba (Mandera), Mohamud Ali (Marsabit), Mohammed Kuti (Isiolo) and Mohamed Abdi of Wajir all agree that it will one of the most transformative initiatives under President Uhuru Kenya’s tenure and should be cushioned from threats of security challenges including Al Shabaab militants targeting construction works.
Packaged with an internet supply cable, the North Eastern Transport Improvement project (NETIP) will better transport services along the Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera corridor and reduce the journey hours between the Capital Nairobi and the Mandera.
Currently, it takes nearly two days or about 20 hours of driving in a brand-new Land Cruiser from Nairobi to Mandera, a distance of about 1,200 kilometers. Buses take two days on the stretch, that is when it does not rain!
Governor Roba says the road will impact lives in ways never envisaged before and will harness dozens of opportunities for the residents and the county governments who pay a fortune for transport costs to have goods delivered.
For example, a bag of cement in Nairobi costs between Shs570-630 in Nairobi and Machakos counties while the same bag landed in Mandera costs Shs1,150- 1,200. The difference in cost covers transport. A journey by bus from Nairobi to Mandera costs Sh3,500 one way twice the price between Busia and Mombasa.
The project is being implemented by the Kenya National Highways Authority and the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) which tasked with delivering the digital aspects of connectivity.
The frontier counties have been plagued by poor internet connectivity affecting their transactions including Integrated Financial Management Systems, (IFMIS) and banking services from time to time when the fibre optic is disconnected or telephony services grounded when transmission masts are grounded by militia.
The construction of the 350km road corridor will spur social and economic infrastructure including roadside markets, new income earning opportunities, internet connectivity and new job opportunities for youth who seeking employment.
When actualized, the project is envisaged as an opportunity to improve Kenya’s strong economic performance which should translate into shared prosperity and a strategy to reduce poverty across the region.
The pastoralists from the region can then make good returns from their organic fresh meats transported to Nairobi for consumption or for onward for freighting to destinations with higher market values like European Union and the Arab world.
World Bank project team Leader Eng. Josephat Sasia explained the Banks preparedness to start the project and as soon as all issues such as security and matters regarding cess are addressed. The four governors already signed an Mou removing the taxes to pave way for commencement of the project. The National Government has waived taxes to reduce project costs.
KenHA has promised to work with the counties to construct 5km of roads to improve road networks in the region, another bonus bagged by a county like Mandera which had never had a single kilometer of tarmac since independence.
KenHA says the entire stretch of the roads has been divided into lots 1-8. Some section of the road has been reserved for the local contractors, that the section between Kutulo to Elwak. The engineering designs have been completed except for the Kutulo-Elwak section and this is also expected to complete in the next two months.
When completed, the road will immensely boost security and reduce incidents of improvised explosive devices always buried in earth roads by extremist groups targeting travelers and security agents.
The writer is the Chief of Staff Mandera County Government