How new Isiolo-Marsabit road is boosting commerce as security improves

Hussein Marsa is a bus conductor along the Isiolo-Marsabit road. Muscular, bearded and loud-voiced, he seems from another era not too long ago; one in which the rough terrain that was the Isiolo- Marsabit- Moyale road demanded tough travellers.

No motorist would attempt a journey on this road in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Transport was almost exclusively by trucks and lorries. Yet, Marsa had to earn his keep by ferrying commuters along the treacherous 244km route.

He would depart Isiolo at 6a.m and arrive in Marsabit 13 hours later dusty, hungry and angry, his mind engrossed in the awaiting return trip.

Ideally, it should take just over three hours to cover the distance driving at 80kph on a smooth road. Marsa says he would have laughed on your face months ago if you hinted this could be possible on this route.

But he is now living this reality.

“We currently take only three and a half hours from Isiolo to Marsabit. I make three trips a day,” he says.

More money in the pocket, and then some, as he says vehicle maintenance cost has really gone down and he no longer spends on accommodation.

“We now use this Toyota ‘Box’ vans; (the vehicle looks like a bigger version of the Probox) lorries belong in the past,” he says before hurriedly jumping onto his matatu to embark on the second trip of the day.

Marsa’s relief is shared by many within the dusty Isiolo town and along the route to Marsabit, an outpost of the Colonial Northern Frontier District. Once, close to a century ago, the colonialists wanted to replicate Britain’s Great North Road in Africa, connecting Cape Town to Cairo.

New beginnings

The Isiolo Moyale road that connects Kenya to Ethiopia was part of this grand plan, but it collapsed, marginalising about 70 percent of Kenya’s land, ignored by successive governments.

But the ambitious the Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project has instantly transformed Isiolo, giving the locals a new lease of life.

The project aims to ensure seamless connectivity between Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan, with highways, airports, railway lines and resort cities among its key features.

As part of the project, the 508km section from Isiolo to Moyale is over 97 percent done, with only civil works pending. According to the Lapsset Corridor Development Authority (LCDA) July 2016 Report, travel time here has reduced from three days to about 10 hours.

The entire 1566km highway all the way to Hawassa in Ethiopia is expected to be fully completed by December this year.

A one kilometre runway has been completed at Isiolo Airport, with construction works on the terminal building currently at an advanced stage.

Cruising through the section between Isiolo to Marsabit is an absorbing experience. The spanking new tarmac, juxtaposed with the yellow markings contrasts dramatically with the shadowy hills that hug the landscape.

If lucky, one can spot wildlife; from elephant herds to giraffes grazing around.

There is visible increased level of economic activities along the road. Shops and residential houses are quickly sprouting by the highway, teeming with fresh groceries that would hitherto not have survived the vagaries of road transport.

According to the LCDA report, the road has increased market access, improved delivery of government services, triggered a rise in land value and created employment opportunities.

In June 2015 a County Stakeholders Consultative forum from the region reported that maternal deaths were decreasing as a result of faster access to medical facilities.

Coupled with the planned resort city in Isiolo as well as the almost completed Isiolo International Airport, the Isiolo-Moyale road is expected to significantly boost tourism in Northern Kenya.

This is considering the fact that the road has further opened up Mt. Kenya, Samburu, Meru, Aberdares and Marsabit National Parks as well as the wildlife conservancies within the region.

But more importantly, it has helped boost security in a region synonymous with bandits and inter-ethnic conflicts. Three years ago, a CapitalFM news team narrowly escaped a bandit attack on their way to Marsabit. But some passengers lorry (the only means of transport then) was not too lucky.

“In Marsabit County, the security agencies have reported they are able to respond timely to security threats and hotspots and the conflicts especially inter-community have significantly reduced,” the report states.

However, compared to the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, and further up to Uganda via Nakuru, the Isiolo Moyale road seems underutilised as evidenced by lonely drives only broken by the occasional car and camels sauntering freely on the new tarmac.

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