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Why I wish I were Kiambu governor

Monday September 19 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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I live in Kiambu, a county that needs no introduction.

But just in case you just arrived from Mars, it is in what used to be Kenya’s Central Province.

The county borders Nairobi to the south, Machakos to the east, Kajiado and Nakuru to the west and Nyandarua and Murang’a to the north.

Its capital is Kiambu town. Thika, its largest town, is also Kenya’s second largest industrial town. Other important towns include Gatundu, Kikuyu, Githunguri and Kimende.

In 2009, according to the Kenya Population and Housing Census, Kiambu had an estimated population of 1.6 million people, with about 480,000 households. It is largely urban with less than 40 per cent of the population living in rural areas. The county covers an area of 2,543.5 square km, with 476.3 square km under forest cover.

Colonialists took much of the land and developed large plantations, confining the majority of people into African reserves. In the process, they created tremendous pressure on land. To date, wealthy businessmen own much of the land, including a few whites who are descended from the original settlers. 

POOR MIGRANTS

Despite lots of land, Kiambu is one of the most densely populated and most unequal counties in Kenya. Unfortunately, economic studies, even those focused on inequality, rarely debunk the widespread misconception that Kiambu has lots of wealth for everyone.

The consequences of this falsehood include resentment from other regions and a “pull’ factor that attracts people from elsewhere to partake of the “legendary” wealth of the country. Often, poor migrants from elsewhere come to find themselves competing for shacks and hamlets with locals, who are even poorer.

This poverty amongst so much wealth is what motivates me to write this blog post. If the colonialists displaced many residents here into eternal poverty, then urbanisation is sending those who remained into oblivion. 

If you think this is a joke, drive through Ruaka, Wangige, Kikuyu and many small towns adjacent to Nairobi and ask yourself a single question: Where do residents go when they sell their ancestral land and squander the cash?   

We cannot stop this happening, but we can transform the region into a sustainable venture that can rival the likes of Hong Kong.

DREAMS ARE SIMPLISTIC

Declining farmland has forced peasants to build makeshift high-rises containing cows on the ground floor, chickens on another floor and even vegetable farming on the top floor. 

These subsistence farmers rarely make any money. Even with multiple investments in tiny pieces of land, they are not only unable to break even, but also have low productivity.  

Perhaps it is only Githunguri Sub-County that has managed to rear highly productive hybrid dairy cows. The rest are struggling.

The county needs policy intervention to transform it and make everyone a rich member of the family. Kiambu could easily become the bedroom of Nairobi County and, as Trump would say, make Nairobi pay for it.

First, stop all land subdivision and create giant cooperatives in each of its 12 sub-counties, reserving shares for all households of each sub-county.

Then issue Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) to raise mega funds. Use new technologies to build thousands of housing units and significantly lower rents, to disrupt the current exorbitant rents in Nairobi. 

People need to be moved into urban areas so that land can be available for horticultural production and linked to well-organised market centres to create economic activities for everybody. Use the sales proceeds and rental income to pay for social needs like education and health.

You may call this proposal a pipe dream but all dreams are simplistic. It is the will to succeed that strives to have the dreams realised. Centuries ago, many nations developed infrastructure that we marvel at today.

MACHAKOS AND KAJIADO

I wrote this blog in a 12th century building at Oxford University, where I came to give a keynote speech on big data and development. We have more knowledge today to solve poverty than any of the people who lived in the 12th century.

Within our lifetime, we have seen several Asian countries move masses out of poverty, yet Africa keeps on asking where the money will come from. 

In foreign countries people are marvelling how Kenya, for example, leads in terms of organisational innovation – read chamas and the cooperative movement – with some very powerful resource mobilisation strategies.

Back to Kiambu. The transformation project could even start with the purchase of dormant plantations and moving everybody into an urban setup while planning for other lands continues. The immediate outcome of this transformation would be that crime would tumble. 

Once the project takes off, it will certainly create a ripple effect into Machakos and Kajiado, where we could set up industrial cities to create jobs for the urban populations, using the land available in these two counties.  

Konza was meant to bring foreign direct investments. Indeed, interest was overwhelming, but we were overwhelmed by interest but regulatory huddles still bog its implementation. 

The day we discover that regulatory agencies are supposed to facilitate development and not stand in the way, we shall surely develop.

LONDON OVERSPILL

Problems are opportunities. There is no reason why people should languish in poverty yet the resource they possess could be applied in a manner that benefits all.

I write this fully aware that you will keep on asking how such a revolutionary proposal could come to be. It has happened before in many countries, and our problem is self-doubt.

If we mobilised the yes-we-can attitude, we would create greater economic conditions and better social services.

A disruptive transformation has its own ways of expanding the economy and building new capacities that do not exist at the moment. The United States, for example, built its national highways after World War II and the country was able to engage the youth who were the majority then. 

Similarly, Great Britain developed satellite cities around London after the war to facilitate better planning and inject new jobs into the economy. The creation of these new communities, through policy that saw people moved out of London into new areas between 1930 and 1970, was referred to as the London overspill

For planning purposes, we can set the Nairobi overspill in motion to last the next few decades, focusing on transforming communities that are now faced with unplanned expansion that is leaving thousands of people homeless.

Nearer home, there are lessons to learn from Murang’a, where crime (during the Mungiki menace) led to unintended, but positive consequences. Many peasant farmers abandoned their shambas and moved to small towns for security. 

FACTOR OF SUCCESS

Today, Murang’a can be transformed easily because services like clean water and electricity can reach more than 90 per cent of the population, unlike many parts of the country where villages are so scattered that it would be impossible to supply any utility, even to 40 per cent of the population. 

As the Chinese say, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.

Let us create a think tank that would work towards a transformed Kenya. If we moved from self-pity to a yes-we-can attitude, we would build superhighways linking all our county headquarters. 

My brief experience in government is that someone must rise up and take the bull by its horns without fearing that it will gore you to death. 

Risk is a major factor of success and we need to pursue success relentlessly even when faced by cartels and other obstructionists. 

We must also ensure that while we cannot make everyone equal, success must not leave our people, in all regions, behind. This is where humility and selflessness comes into play.

Let us be our brothers’ keeper and thereby guarantee social stability, so that those with wealth are able to enjoy it.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.