Suguta, the ‘Valley of Death’, is brimming with opportunity

Monday May 11 2015

On the night of May 5, NTV News anchor Smriti Vidyarthi interviewed three Members of Parliament from northern Kenya after news emerged that a deadly clash between the Samburu, Turkana and Pokot had left more than 100 dead.

The legislators argued about cattle-rustling and boundaries and natural resources.  They also blamed the government for the insecurity.

None of them mentioned that that the country has lost several security officers in the area. 

Even more significantly, none of the MPs spoke about education, peacebuilding and opportunity for the people in northern Kenya. 

Our northern frontiers are our greatest hidden treasures. The North means vast land, oil, spectacular landscapes, underground water, livestock, undiscovered minerals and, of course, good people.

Among Kenya’s treasures chronicled duringKenya @50, was Suguta Valley, about which it was noted as follows: 


Following reports about cattle rustlers in Suguta Valley, one would likely doubt that the hottest and most barren region of Kenya sensationally labelled 'the Valley of Death' could be a tourist attraction. Yes, the stretch of the Rift Valley between Lake Baringo and Lake Turkana is unforgivingly hot. But it also offers some of the most spectacular desert landscapes, well protected by their inaccessibility. So if you want to experience the majestic Cathedral Rock, the flamingo flocks of Lake Logipi, the beautiful sand dunes or peculiar mushroom rocks, there are only two ways, and both will cost you a hefty price: Walking by foot, assisted only by donkeys as there is no road system  descending hundreds of metres from the surrounding highlands and paying with litres of your precious sweat, or flying in by chopper and paying a bill as high as the valley is deep.

We must exploit these opportunities, which currently lie idle as we waste away people’s lives. 

It is only recently that we got to know that underneath the scourged landscape lies fossil fuel.  The Pokot region has perhaps the most mineral resources that remain unexploited.  There are proven commercial resources, like limestone for cement, in Pokot.

Instead of exploiting this natural resource, the rich fight to control it. Meanwhile, people walk around virtually naked atop their rich lands as we continue to import cement from Asia.

The knowledge asymmetry between ordinary citizens and the emerging capitalists is astounding.  There are many ways of reducing this knowledge gap, which serves as an asset to the political class. 

One way is embracing open data on resource availability and exploitation, so that we know exactly where underground resources are, which in turn would enable exploitation.

There is also need for compulsory education for school going children and cultural modernisation programs. 

From exploiting tourism to supporting education and establishing industries, there is much more that needs to be done in the northern parts of Kenya to not just improve the livelihood of the people there, but also increase our economic output.


Turkana has the potential to become a tourist paradise but it is not one of the tourism products in Kenya, in the famous tourism circuits.

If it were, there would be infrastructure into Suguta Valley and the locals would cease fighting in order to protect this source of livelihood. Kenya's National Tourism Strategy 2013-2018 does not even envisage developing Turkana as a new product.

We cannot hope to build peace among thousands of idle youth without finding something for them to do. In a quid pro quo that is guaranteed to bring peace in the region, the youth in Northern Kenya must also be given educational opportunities that can eventually integrate them into modern Kenyan society. According to the tourism strategy:

The attractions sub-sector of the tourism sector is a growing area which adds to the variety of Kenya as a tourist destination and the overall tourism product. Attractions include natural or man-made, cultural, historical, equestrian, aquatic, aerial, eco-tourism, recreational and environmental facilities for tourists. Tourism in Kenya is currently concentrated in seven parks, which receive 80 per cent of the total number of visitors to the country‘s 26 wildlife sanctuaries. To increase the Kenya‘s competitiveness, there is a need to expand product choice and the quality of tourism facilities and services, as sports tourism and ecotourism are becoming increasingly popular.

From the look of things, however, there is no strategic commitment to develop these products. 

We are stuck with traditional forms of tourism that are prone to distortion by global terrorist activities.  Most of those who frequent traditional attractions are return tourists.


However, other forms of tourism are mostly unaffected in many countries, including conflict countries.  My recent experience in Colombia tells me that we may be our worst enemies when it comes to attracting tourists. Whilst we should be the ones telling the world that not all of Kenya is insecure, we end up being the ones proclaiming that the country is insecure.

If you read further in the strategy, you will find that under “weakness,” we state that Kenya has a security problem.  Travel advisories have never stopped tourists traveling to any country.  But we find them a good excuse to tell all and sundry that Country X is advising its citizens not to travel to Kenya.

Consider the UK travel advisory to Kenya.  The Brits actually do a better job than the Ministry of Tourism because they highlight the troubled areas about which even Kenyans are cautious.

Turkey, on which travel advisories have been placed by Western nations, does not even talk about them.  Yet in 2011, Turkey attracted more than 31.5 million foreign tourists, ranking as the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world. 

By 2013, more than 35 million tourists had visited Turkey, contributing more than $32 billion to the Turkish economy.  Colombia, which is steeped in internal conflict, saw its tourist numbers move from 16 in 2012 to 20 million in 2014. 

Colombia, too, has some serious travel advisories, but they do not rub the wound by mounting loud protests. The UK did also advise their citizens not to travel to Baltimore in the United States when the riots broke out. 


The point is that we have great opportunities to develop new tourism products, including areas like northern Kenya, as a strategy to develop the region and bring our people closer to the rest of the world.

In a related matter, the demand for meat in Kenya has hit such unprecedented proportions that it might be the cause of cattle rustling.  Unscrupulous businessmen recruit youth to steal cattle that end up in butcheries to fuel Kenya’s growing consumption.  The shortage of meat is so severe that we are now eating donkeys from Naivasha, and even wildlife. 

This is an opportunity that must be nurtured in a proper way.  There is need to leverage the pastoralists’ strength in keeping cattle and turn it into large-scale ranching capable of supplying meat, not just to Kenya’s insatiable market, but to the region, as well as for export, particularly to the Middle East.

In spite of the fact that Africa has the most land, its production of beef and dairy products is sub-optimal. Africa is the least productive continent when it comes to livestock.  Tiny New Zealand exports $14 billion worth of dairy and $4 billion of that is imported into Africa. Imagine that.


Part of the problem in the clash-prone region is culture. Men who have stolen the most cattle are revered.  It is a problem that afflicts the entire country where we adore those who have stolen the most from the public till or those who have sold drugs to our children.  We need a total cultural renaissance. 

Somehow we need to inculcate the values we collectively inserted in our Constitution.  I may not have a solution to this, but something drastic on culture in Africa must happen.  If that were to happen, many of the conflicts we have in Africa would cease and we would have peace forever.

American producer Orson Welles once said: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” 

Let not the suffering of Africa be in vain. Let us produce the African Renaissance.

The Writer is an Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito