The tarmacking of the 748-kilometre Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera road will be the biggest game changer for the North Eastern Counties of Kenya, the biggest infrastructure project undertaken in the region since independence in 1963.
The World Bank-Government of Kenya funded project will go along way in opening up a region that has largely been underserved and is performing below national average on development indicators.
It is a milestone for the World Bank which has funded projects biasedly along the railway line reinforcing the argument of marginalisation of the North Eastern region despite profiling the area as abjectly poor.
Poverty levels in North Eastern are extremely high at 70 per cent compared to 45pe cent national average, largely due to 50 years of neglect.
The road networks are poor though marked improvement has been seen since the advent of devolution in 2013.
Electricity access is at seven per cent and most households experience water stress due to the extreme dry conditions.
The region is characteristically arid or semi-arid and frequent droughts create vulnerabilities for the population, 90 per cent of whom rely on livestock whose potential has not been exploited because of poor infrastructure.
Governors Ali Roba (Mandera), Mohamud Ali (Marsabit), Mohammed Kuti (Isiolo) and Mohamed Abdi of Wajir all agree that it will be one of the most transformative initiatives under President Uhuru Kenya’s tenure and should be cushioned from threats of security challenges including Al Shabaab militants targeting construction works.
Packaged with an internet supply cable, the North Eastern Transport Improvement project (NETIP) will better transport services along the Isiolo-Wajir-Mandera corridor and reduce the journey hours between the Capital Nairobi and the Mandera.
Currently, it takes nearly two days or about 20 hours of driving in a brand new Land Cruiser from Nairobi to Mandera, a distance of about 1,200 kilometres. Buses take a good two days on the stretch, that is when it does not rain!
Governor Roba says the road will impact lives in ways never envisaged before and will harness dozens of opportunities for the residents and the county governments who pay a fortune for transport costs to have goods delivered.
For example, a bag of cement in Nairobi costs between Sh570 - 630 in Nairobi and Machakos counties while the same bag in Mandera costs Sh1,150- 1,200. The difference in cost covers transport. A journey by bus from Nairobi to Mandera costs Sh3,500 one way, twice the price between Busia and Mombasa.
The project is being implemented by the Kenya National Highways Authority and the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) which is tasked with delivering the digital aspects of connectivity.
The frontier counties have been plagued by poor internet connectivity affecting their transactions including Integrated Financial Management Systems (IFMIS) and banking services from time to time when the fibre optic is disconnected or telephony services grounded when transmission masts are grounded by militia.
The construction of the 350km road corridor will spur social and economic infrastructure including roadside markets, new income earning opportunities, internet connectivity and new job opportunities for youth who seeking employment.
When actualised, the project is envisaged as an opportunity to improve Kenya’s strong economic performance which should translate into shared prosperity and a strategy to reduce poverty across the region.
The pastoralists from the region can then make good returns from their organic fresh meats transported to Nairobi for consumption or onward for freighting to destinations with higher market values like European Union and the Arab world.
World Bank project team Leader Eng. Josephat Sasia explained the Bank’s eagerness to start the project as soon as all issues such as security and matters regarding are addressed. The four governors have already signed an MoU removing the taxes to pave way for commencement of the project. The National Government has waived taxes to reduce project costs.
KenHA has promised to work with the counties to construct 5km of roads to improve road networks in the region, another bonus bagged by a county like Mandera which had never had a single kilometre of tarmac since independence.
The writer is the Chief of Staff Mandera County Government