Western Kenya: Palpable change four years later

Tom Murphy lived in Western Kenya in 2009. The following story is based on his return to the region for the first time in nearly four years.

Kakamega, Kenya – Crossing the road in Kakamega is getting a lot harder. Bikes, trucks, public buses (matatus), people and motorcycles fill every space possible on the two lane road, transforming into three or even four lanes. The town in the middle of Western Kenya has outgrown the paved road.

The changes that Western Kenya has undergone over the past four years are stark. New businesses are opening, roads are improving and markets are expanding to offer new products and services.

A slow and steady beat of development keeps thumping on transforming towns and creating new regional hubs. Kakamega, a town that stands between Kisumu to the south and Eldoret to the northeast, is asserting itself as the vital location in Western Province.

I lived in the Malava,  a town thirty minutes north of Kakamega, for the year of 2009. Returning to the area for the first time in nearly four years for this reporting trip revealed a region undergoing significant change.

Two malls now house a Tuskys and a Nakumatt respectively. The shopping superstores (think Target and Walmart) carry a greater variety of cheaper food, household products and clothing than was available at local supermarkets. The malls also come with new restaurants, hair salons, internet cafes and start-up businesses.

A live band played at the bar next to the Nakumatt. They play in the light guitar picking style that is popular in the region. Watchers drink the Kenyan beer Tusker, fruit juice or a mixture of Coca-Cola and Guinness Extra Stout. Most each chicken, the preferred meal for the Luhya dominated area.

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The A1 road that cuts through the middle of Kakamega from Kisumu was a place to access the local market. People with makeshift stalls would sell their wares and food while other shopping needs were further off the road. Adding the two malls and other businesses has shifted the human traffic to the immediate area surrounding the A1.

Businesses still exist off the road. The area is still growing. However, fewer people are venturing to those parts. The change illustrates how the competing superstores have shifted shopping habits. Then there is a university expanding in the center of town and the soon-to-be-opened public market.

Motorcycle taxis line the side of the road.
Motorcycle taxis line the side of the road.

Change goes beyond the physical buildings. Transportation is also undergoing a significant upgrade. The bicycle taxi, called boda-boda, was long a popular way of traveling around Western Kenya. Riders lined up near public transportation routes and markets to provide relatively cheap rides for people. Around 2008, motorcycles started making an appearance.

Most were private vehicles that enabled people with some means the ability to own a vehicle when a car may be too expensive. Some started offering the same taxi services as the bikes, but the high prices kept people away.

Now, it is the motorcycle that is starting to edge out the bicycle. Prices, for the most part, have remained constant and in some cases decreased. With towns slowly improving and greater competition, the motorcycle is the preferred option for its speed and ability to navigate some of the tougher roads.

Traffic is increasing on the roads. Malava moved its bus stage away from the road after seeing an increase in accidents. The change has opened doors for small shops to open around the stage in order to service travelers who are passing through or staying. Storefronts are filling the street behind the stage, a further sign of slow progress.

For people living outside of the downtown areas, things continue much the same. Subsistence farmers face new challenges thanks to a disease that wiped away maize crops last year. Increased market activity may be a good sign for selling what little they can, but they continue to benefit from telecoms forward leaps.

Two bank branches with ATM machines are now in town. The first ATM was installed in late 2009, but was still not operational by the end of the year. My form of banking involved taking a matatu ride to Kakamega at least once a month to withdraw roughly $200. Rent money was kept in my pocket and the rest was deposited into my M-PESA account. Despite no ATMs in Malava, there a half-dozen M-PESA agents where I could make a withdrawal.

Downtown Malava.
Downtown Malava.

M-PESA gets deserved attention for its impact on business, banking and remittances. Though the biggest changes in Kenya’s mobile phone system may be more basic. Cell phone providers used to compete by offering significantly better prices within the network. That meant people had to carry multiple sim cards to maximize savings.

Now, the costs are virtually the same across networks. Prices for domestic and international calls are falling through the floor. A call to the US cost 25 KSH per minute in 2009. Today it is only 5 KSH. Spreading 3G networks are improving internet access as prices for bundles of data decrease to the point where it costs only 1,000 KSH for 1.5 GB of data.

The ability to buy as little as 40 MB of data at a time and data saving web browsers on phones means that more people can access news, email, Facebook and more at any time. Internet connectivity is still not very broad, especially where the phone networks are patchy, but decreasing prices and increased uptake is a promising trend.

Kakamega market.
Kakamega market.

By outward appearances, things are looking better in Western Kenya. Looks alone do not tell the whole story. John, a carpenter in Malava, said his business is doing very poorly. His staff were constructing wooden chairs on commission for customers.

“People are not buying as much furniture anymore,” he said.

It may be that John’s competitors are taking more customers. But it is more likely indicative of the sometimes maddeningly slow path of development. He remains optimistic that things will soon improve. Surrounded by progress, John hopes he can catch a ride.

The A1 road is expanding. Chinese contractors are leading Kenyan workers north and south of Kakamega to add at least one if not more lanes for each direction. Soon the road might need traffic cops or even stop lights to allow people to pass back and forth (not that those things will prevent drivers from speeding along).

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.