• The tarmacking of the Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera 748 is the biggest infrastructure project undertaken in the region since Independence in 1963.
• The region is characteristically arid or semi-arid and frequent droughts create vulnerabilities for the population.
The tarmacking of the Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera 748 -kilometre road will be the biggest game-changer for the Northeastern 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 the national average on development indicators.
It is a milestone for the World Bank which has been biased in historically funding projects along the railway line, reinforcing the argument of marginalisation of the Northeastern region despite profiling the area as abjectly poor.
Poverty levels in Northeastern are extremely high at 70 per cent, compared to the national average of 45 per cent. 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 only seven per cent and most households experience water shortage due to extremely 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 the road will one of the most transformative initiatives under President Uhuru Kenya’s tenure. It should be guarded against security challenges, including al Shabaab militants targeting construction works.
Packaged with an internet supply cable, the NortheasternTransport Improvement project (NETIP) will dramatically improve transport services along the Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera corridor and reduce the journey hours between the capital Nairobi and Mandera.
Currently, it takes nearly two days or about 20 hours of driving in a brand-new Land Cruiser from Nairobi to Mandera, about 1,200 kilometres. Buses take a good two days on the stretch, that is, when it does not rain!
Governor Roba says the road will transform lives in ways never envisaged before and will provide 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 Sh570 to Sh630 in Nairobi and Machakos counties, while the same bag landed in Mandera costs Sh1,150 to Sh1,200. 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 is 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. This happens when the fibre optic is disconnected or telephony services grounded when transmission masts are grounded by a 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 seeking employment.
The project is 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 can then make good returns from their organic fresh meats transported to Nairobi or onward for freighting to destinations with higher market values like the European Union and the Middle East.
World Bank project team leader Eng. Josephat Sasia explained the Bank's eagerness to start the project as soon as all issues such as security and cess are addressed. The four governors already signed an MoU removing the taxes to pave way for the commencement of the project. The national government has waived taxes to reduce project costs.
KenHA has promised to work with the counties to construct five kilometres of roads to improve road networks in the region, another bonus bagged by a county like Mandera which had never had a single kilometre 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 local contractors, the section from Kutulo to Elwak. The engineering designs have been completed except for the Kutulo-Elwak section and this is also expected to be completed in the next two months.
When completed, the road will immensely increase security and reduce incidents of improvised explosive devices always buried in earth roads by extremist groups targeting travellers and security agents.
The writer is the Chief of Staff of the Mandera County Government.