Taita Taveta is strategically positioned along the Northern Corridor and on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, with the potential of becoming a regional economic hub.
The county lies along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway.
Despite having minerals, natural forests, reliable rainfall on its highlands, two large water bodies - Lake Jipe and Lake Chala – Mzima water springs and two of Kenya's largest national parks—Tsavo East and Tsavo West—the county lags behind in development.
It is a sleeping giant, but with good strategies the county can become one of the biggest contributors to Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) after Nairobi and Mombasa counties, experts say.
The region has a rich history. It is among the first places in Kenya where commercial farming of sisal, cotton, tea and coffee was started by British settlers before they moved further inland to Central and Rift Valley.
Kenya’s first airstrip was set up at Makitau, Taveta, during World War II, as well as Kenya’s first newspaper - The Taveta Chronicles — something you might never be taught in history class.
Governor Granton Samboja believes he has what it takes to reclaim the region’s lost glory—Coast's food basket, the commercial hub linking Kenya and Tanzania, the great exporter of minerals, a tourism hub and a medical referral county.
His priorities include revamping agriculture, transforming Voi Township, which lies along the Northern Corridor, into a 24-hour economy, transforming health services, improving education and increasing revenue collection to contribute to Kenya’s GDP.
Taita Taveta is made up of lowlands and highlands, which are all suited for agriculture. For many years, the region has been the food basket for Coast and Eastern. However, agricultural production has been on the decline recently.
Samboja says Taita Taveta has about 57,000 farming households, but large tracts of arable land are lying idle as residents ditch farming to seek work in Nairobi and Mombasa.
The region is among the leading milk-producing counties. Samboja says they are putting up 10 milk cooling plants, providing seedlings and training farmers, as well as providing artificial insemination services.
The county produces 18 million litres of milk every year, but Samboja’s administration wants to double the capacity to more than 30 million litres every year.
“Agriculture is a sector that is key to my heart. Taita Taveta county is among the leading milk producing counties, but this has been counterproductive to the dairy farmers because they lack farm inputs and another major concern is cooling plants. In an ambitious plan, we have put up cooling plants with one in Bura already complete,” he says.
Other cooling plants are being installed in Wundanyi, Werugha, Mwanda, Mghange, Sagala, Taveta, Ngerenyi, Wongonyi and Rong’e.
Agriculture executive Davis Mwangoma said when they came into office last August they found that farmers lacked training on modern agricultural practices, low uptake of agricultural extension services, and lack of processing plants and market for products.
They have trained more than 10,000 farmers on modern techniques, provided fertilisers at subsidised prices and distributed seeds.
Mwangoma says they are encouraging farmers in the highland to grow macadamia and avocado, whose exports are fetching huge returns for farmers elsewhere. In lowlands they are encouraging farmers to grow bananas and cotton.
“Within the last one year, we have been able to supply farmers in the highland areas with more than 7,000 seedlings of macadamia and avocado. We are targeting to make sure that each year we supply them with 10,000 of both macadamia and avocado,” he says.
“In the lowland areas, we have been able to supply our farmers with six tonnes of cotton seedlings, some 12 tonnes of assorted maize, beans, sorghum and green gram seeds and over 6,000 banana seedlings.”
With the help of the European Union, the county government is putting up a Sh112 million banana processing plant in Taveta. The county is also putting up a tomato processing plant in Njukini, Taveta.
The county has subsidised cattle artificial insemination services from Sh2,000 to Sh200 and over the last three months some 700 cows have been inseminated.
“We are the only county that has stepped up in a large way in providing artificial insemination to dairy farmers. We have not only made it affordable for thousands of farmers but also carried it out on a large scale,” Samboja says.
The governor believes that in the next five years Taita Taveta will once again become the food basket for not only the Coast, but the entire country as well.
Samboja has put in place strategies to utilise the county's geographical position and natural resources, such as iron ore reserves, to become a regional commercial hub.
“My government is working round the clock to make Voi town a 24-hour economy. Among the plans we have is construction of a modern bus park that will help us tap into the huge human traffic that passes through our county,” he says.
Lighting of the town and construction of new feeder roads are already underway. “Our vision is to see the town not only attract investments in terms of hotels, but also retain it in terms of revenue,” Samboja says.
The county receives only Sh4 billion equitable share from the National Treasury. Since 2013, the county’s revenue collection has been less than Sh255 million annually, but Samboja is optimistic of hitting Sh300 million this year.
According to records, in 2013-14 the county collected Sh147 million, Sh253 million in 2014-15, Sh197 million in 2015-16, Sh170 million in 2016-17 and Sh203 million in 2017-18—an 18 per cent increase.
Samboja says there is collective resolve in his administration to focus on revenue collection. “We have tightened the grip on revenue streams that have in the past evaded the revenue department due to weak enforcement measures,” he says.
They have also come up with policies to ensure maximum revenue collection. One is the Sand Harvesting Bill, which once it becomes law will ensure those engaged in the business get value for money, protect water catchment areas and stop the exploitation of this natural resource.
Samboja inherited a Sh1 billion debt. He appointed a task force to audit all pending bills and the findings, he says, have informed his government’s approach to expenditure. Now money is put where the need is, he says.
Finance executive Vincent Masawi says they are hopeful that with the strategies in place they will realise their targets.
“We are putting up weighbridges in Ndii, Bachuma, Njukini and Salaita. These weighbridges will help increase our revenue collection. Before, trucks carrying sand from Taita Taveta were declared underweight. As a government we were losing so much revenue,” he says.
Masawi says they will soon go paper-less to cut off cartels and brokers.
“We need to go cashless. We are putting up a better automated system. However, the challenge has been poor internet connectivity because of the geographical terrain of Taita—the hills and the valleys. But we are working with the national government and we shall resolve this issue soon,” he says.
Samboja wants to transform Moi Hospital in Voi to a level 5 hospital.
The hospital receives about 1,600 road accident victims annually because of its strategic position along the Northern Corridor. It however does not have capacity to handle complex cases.
Samboja says soon the hospital will be handling major cases because they are putting up a trauma centre.
“We are putting up a CT Scan, which is now about 95 per cent complete. I’m happy to announce it will soon be launched. We are also upgrading the transformer at the facility from the current 350KV to 510KV,” he says.
The county government has already put up a renal centre at Moi Hospital in Voi, which currently serves 19 people. The hospital is also undergoing ISO Standard Certification.
Health Executive Frank Mwangemi says health is both money and labour-intensive, but as a county government, they have come up with strategies to provide universal healthcare.
“We have launched a Sh40 million Health Insurance project—Afya Bora Mashinani—in which we have partnered with the National Hospital Insurance Fund. The county government will be paying Sh6,000 annual premiums to NHIF on behalf of residents who cannot afford medical cover,” he explains.
So far, some 252 households have been issued with NHIF cards, with more to follow suit.
Mwangemi says eight new medical facilities will be established before the end of the year.
The county also plans to set up mobile clinics to serve far-flung places. “We want to ensure that the poorest of the poor are able to get services,” Mwangemi says.