Kisumu, where some folks are eating well, while others are going hungry

Wednesday May 22 2013

I was last in Kisumu “City” nearly seven years ago. At that time, I was, how shall I put it, terribly underwhelmed?

There were a few signs of life here and there, but mainly Kisumu looked like it was a dying big town.

I remember our flight back at the rickety airport then was delayed, so most of us sat outside under mango trees on broken benches waiting for the night ride back to Nairobi.

The runway was so battered that shortly afterwards, Kenya Airways suspended its flights to Kisumu because it was unsafe.

The Kenya Airports Authority followed suit, and closed the place down for an upgrade.

A year ago, former President Mwai Kibaki was in Kisumu to open the “new” airport. He was received rather warmly, and I wondered why.


I was back there two days ago, and I found the answer. I thought, as we were landing, that the pilot had gone got lost (as the folks back in my village would say).

The runway is impressive, and the terminal building, while not that big, is intelligently built and very tasteful.

But the remarkable thing was the sight upon landing. You see a new estate going up or that has gone up. Kisumu even has traffic jams these days.

A friend, who has a very good job, had complained to me that a few years ago, he could have afforded to buy a plot of his choice in the municipality. Today, he cried, he can no longer afford land in the town.

He had recently been forced to go and buy land in the outlying villages, and he is hoping his plots will be very valuable “when the city reaches the village”.

So what happened? Well, some folks told me that the development in Kisumu was the “half a loaf of bread” that former Prime Minister Raila Odinga took there when he was in power in the Kibaki-led Grand Coalition government.

I am always suspicious of these neat political explanations. As it happens, I am also a part-time environmentalist.

I caught up with a clever environmentalist who also tracks the agriculture sector.

He told me that five years ago, the fruit, and several other foods sold in the Kisumu supermarkets came from outside Nyanza, from places like Machakos.

Today, the fruit sold in the supermarkets is grown in and around Kisumu. He said there were orchards and food plantations coming up in the wider Nyanza region that he never thought he would see “his people” come up with.

The airport, he said, has only spurred a development that was underway. People are investing more in horticulture and other foods because they see that the airport has opened new export routes for them.

But people just don’t wake up one day and take advantage of new infrastructure. Something else happened, and Nyanza, the wider Western Kenya, and the Coastal regions tell us what it is.

The people at the Coast and Nyanza were not “lazy” as some stereotypes portrayed them. They were simply hobbled by the burden of malaria. All over Africa, the richest parts of countries are those with no or a low malaria burden.

While malaria rates are still unacceptably high in Kisumu, between 2003 and 2012, they fell sharply.

Adults were less sick with malaria and could now work more. Children could study for more days.

The parents saved the money for malaria treatment. So average incomes have risen, and the examination scores of the Nyanza schools have risen sharply.

And something else has happened in Kenya generally. Since the referendum of 2005, and the election of 2007, margins of victory have shrunk to a few thousand votes.

These narrow wins mean that while politicians from “marginalised” communities might lose in elections, the voters don’t. The power of these regions to extract what I call “blackmail development” increases.

A president who wins with a razor-thin margin, or in a controversial vote, needs to bolster his legitimacy.

He will be keen to appease the areas where he did badly so that he doesn’t look like the President of one region or tribe.

My sense is that Nyanza’s ability to attract “blackmail development” has risen sharply over the last 10 years. We wait to see what the future will bring.