In the mid 1990s, Mr Julius Wahome would make good money selling tomatoes from his three-acre farm in Laikipia to Mombasa using the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway line.
The business was so good that he invested enough money and secured a bank loan to buy a plot and a personal car.
But the business has since declined following the collapse of the railway. Like Mr Wahome, several farmers have either stopped cultivating fresh agriculture produce or abandoned their farms altogether.
“We had formed a group of farmers from Laikipia and Nyeri after identifying good markets for tomatoes and French beans in Mombasa,” recalls Mr Wahome, whose farm is in Matanya, Laikipia East. He says they would load fresh produce into wagons at different railway stations between Nanyuki in Laikipia and Karatina in Nyeri County.
He is among farmers and business people in Mount Kenya region who have welcomed plans to revive the railway line that collapsed in 2005. It had been abandoned earlier during the reign of President Moi but then Transport Minister John Michuki invigorated it in 2004. After Mr Michuki was transferred to Internal Security docket the following year, the revived railway stalled.
Mr Wahome and his group had employed agents who would travel to Mombasa by bus to liaise with brokers at Mombasa’s Kongowea Market.
Fresh produce such as tomatoes was always in high demand. Mr Wahome would get as much as Sh70,000 from tomato sales alone. The crops grew on between January and March when demand was high.
But the business became unsustainable with the collapse of the railway as they now had to transport their cargo to Karatina Town for onward transit to Mombasa by exorbitant trucks. “If the railway line is revived, I will go back to my farm and restart my tomato business,” said Mr Wahome, who now works with a transport company.
The business community in Mount Kenya region have welcomed plans by their governors to revive the metre gauge railway.
Eight governors, among them Nairobi’s Mike Sonko, are in the process of upgrading the 240km railway that extends from Nairobi to Nanyuki. Others include Ndiritu Muriithi (Laikipia), Ferdinand Waititu (Kiambu), Mwangi wa Iria (Murang’a), Anne Waiguru (Kirinyaga), Francis Kimemia (Nyandarua) and Mohammed Kuti (Isiolo). The late Wahome Gakuru (Nyeri) also supported the plan.
The line cuts across Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Nyeri and Laikipia counties. Nyandarua County is also a beneficiary as it neighbours all the five regions.
The new railway will be extended to Isiolo to link up with the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor. The project is being undertaken by Kenya Railways and the national Government and is expected to cost Sh25 billion. The eight counties will contribute Sh100 million each.
The chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Laikipia County, Mr Francis Gitonga says Nanyuki may regain its lost glory as an inland port if the revival plans work. The same goes for towns like Karatina, Sagana, Maragwa and Saba Saba.
Meanwhile, Nairobi County intends to build markets for hawkers at Ruiru, Githurai, Dandora and other areas where the railway line cuts through to decongest the city.