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Turkana's young people are not waiting for the oil

Monday August 8 2016

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Last week, I attended a graduation ceremony for young pastoralist coders in Lodwar, Turkana County. 

This was the first graduating cohort of the Learning Lions, a project founded by a team of NGO workers and a Kenyan, Brizan Were.

The early morning flight out of Wilson Airport takes 90 minutes to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana, with a brief stop at Eldoret.

Lodwar Airstrip is small, and the planes share it with young lads playing soccer. Whenever a plane lands or takes off, a pickup truck drives the entire length of the runway to ensure the playing children do not collide with the plane.

Ludwig Bayern and his entire team of founders came to welcome us at the airport.

I am with a friend, Michael Njoroge, and with us on the flight were Juliana Rotich, a member of Kenya’s Vision 2030 Board and a Ted Fellow, Tim Chesire and his brother Toro.

As we pace through to the waiting cars, Ludwig tells me that they had a in Internet connection problem but that everything was set for now.

Finding out that Internet connectivity was still a problem took me by surprise, since I was pretty sure we had laid the National Optic Fibre Broadband Infrastructure (NOFBI) to Lodwar when I was still at the Ministry of Information and Communication. 

I was told that no one had ever heard of NOFBI. We decided, there and then, that nothing should happen until we located where NOFBI had been terminated. At the county commissioners’ office, the guards were clueless. They told us that something might have been buried at the compound. 

We decide to drive to the nearby police station. The affable commanding officer told us he did not know anything about the fibre-optic cable because he was new to the station. 

A reservist sitting nearby murmured something like, “The black thing that was buried along the road?” I turned quickly and said “yes”, but he changed his mind fast, perhaps thinking we were doing some kind of police investigation, which he didn’t want to be involved in.

I made a few phone calls to PS Victor Kyalo then to Telkom Kenya. Eventually, I got to know that it had been terminated at the Lodwar Post Office. 

The postmaster took us to a back room, where he thought the terminal might be, but he had no keys. Undeterred, we went round to the back and established from a neglected manhole that the cable indeed terminated there.

At the Learning Lion offices, Ludwig took me around to explain what they do. I meet John Loreng, a self-taught coder working on web development for a European client at Startup Lion, a company set up to absorb the Learning Lions into formal employment. 


Nearby, Humphrey Ekal is editing a video for another European client which had been stored on an external storage device, since the Internet capacity here cannot handle large files.

This problem should not be there. We had supplied infrastructure thinking people would automatically use it and I blamed myself for not doing enough sensitisation.

Ekal ran away from nursing school to do what he loved most – working with computers – and to achieve his personal dreams. 

He hopes to integrate his county of close to 900,000 inhabitants with the rest of the world through ICTs. 

Aware of the many challenges his county faces, he is determined to do something and hopefully rescue many other youth, some of whom are homeless. Others have fallen into drunkenness and glue sniffing in Lodwar.    

Humphrey Ekal and Bitange Ndemo. PHOTO |
Humphrey Ekal and Bitange Ndemo. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

I later discovered that many NGOs here have failed because their interventions were largely supply-driven. Input from the locals is often ignored and very little attention is paid to where their interests lie. 

There are also other supply-driven government projects that failed. The facility the Learning Lions are using was built as a Teachers Training College, but not a single student registered there. 

At one point an NGO built a complete drip irrigation system, but the pastoralist community was more interested in its livestock and other social commitments. They travelled far away for a cultural festival, leaving the crops drying behind them since no one was around to pump water into the drip system.

At the graduation ceremony, we are joined by Deputy Governor Peter Ekai Lokgel, and Turkana Central Member of Parliament Lodepe Nakara, who worked with the ICT Authority at some point during my tenure at the Ministry of Communication.


Parents, relatives, teachers and local donor agency representatives came to witness the graduation. The graduands had gone through an intensive three month-training course on five different topics: basics of computer programming and technology, digital design, business and communication, professional skills, leadership and strategic thinking. 

Participants were selected on the basis of an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test and upon graduation, will be employed at Startup Lion ,where they can start their own companies  Their work, speech and confidence could place them anywhere in the world, where they would be as competitive as anyone else outside of Turkana.

Jay Larson, who started a successful Kibra-based code school, Tunapanda, developed the course syllabus.

Dr Ndemo with Ludwig, Juliana and Loreng. PHOTO
Dr Ndemo with Ludwig, Juliana and Loreng. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

Mr Lokgel knows what his people want. Acknowledging that his county's economy is solely dependent on devolved funds, he says more investments are needed.    

He tells me that Turkana has sufficient water from the Turkwel and Suguta rivers to build a tannery to process their abundant hides and skins, and perhaps start a shoemaking industry in the county. 

At the moment, many of their raw hides are exported to Ethiopia, which has emerged as the leading exporter of army boots to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). 

Besides oil that has yet to be commercially exploited, Turkana has abundant gypsum, the raw material for cement, that has also not been exploited. There could be other resources like gemstones but not much research activity goes on here. 

Lake Turkana, although receding, still has enormous fish resources and opportunities in the tourism industry. The county leadership worries that someday, the lake will dry up due to dams being built by the Ethiopian government on the Omo River for electricity generation. 

There are no studies so far to show the present and future impact of the development of the Gibe power generation plant, which could cause an environmental catastrophe.

For now it is the national government that is responsible for international boundaries and utilisation of common resources.

The founders of Startup Lions with the Deputy
The founders of Startup Lions with the Deputy Governor Peter Ekai Lokgel (in white shirt) and local MP Lodepe Nakara (in red). PHOTO | BTANGE NDEMO

A morning drive from Lodwar to Karakol reveals one of the major problems in Turkana – floods. The entire landscape is visibly devastated by raging flash floods, delivering water from the many hills into Lake Turkana. 

There are acres of sand that make it impossible to build sustainable infrastructure between the two major towns. 

On the flipside, this flooding can be turned into an opportunity if the water is dammed. This will solve multiple other problems. 

The irony of Turkana’s water resources is that the two major rivers do not distribute water evenly and according to the Kenya Interagency Rapid Assessment Report, the county is water-poor, with less than 20 per cent of the population accessing only 20 litres of water per day. 

Therefore, it is far cheaper to purify rainwater than to desalinate alkaline water from the lake or boreholes. The alkaline water's fluoride content has affected virtually everyone in the county.

With the building of dams, this pastoralist community would be able to salvage their livestock during the dry season. 

A meeting with the local people at Karakol reveals more problems. Girls as young as 12 years are having children.

The number of children under 10 was disproportionately higher than that of caregivers. 

Although child mortality is at 60 per 1,000, it is significantly higher than the national average of 37 per 1,000 in 2014, but is still an improvement from 66 per thousand in 1999. 

Furthermore, according UNICEF reports, only 54 per cent of children aged below five years are being fully immunised, which is below the national average of 83 per cent.

The rising population negates improvement in the economy. For rapid economic growth, the county government must begin to aggressively promote family planning, discourage early marriages, educate girls and work toward reduction of infant mortality rates.

Alfonso Ramón ("Al" López) an  American professional baseball player and manager once said:

Do what you love to do and give it your very best. Whether it's business or baseball, or the theatre, or any field. If you don't love what you're doing and you can't give it your best, get out of it. Life is too short. You'll be an old man before you know it.

The author is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito