Pressure on land and overpopulation have helped transform the Abagusii into one of Kenya’s most enterprising communities.
Their large number has put a strain on food production in the otherwise fertile county pushing residents into business and farming elsewhere in Kenya and the world.
Kisii county is one of the most densely populated rural area in Kenya charaterised by high fertility rates.
Its 1.1 million people are crammed in area of 1,300 square kilometres. The population density of nearly 900 people per square kilometre is one of the highest in Kenya.
This population explosion has been both a blessing and a curse for the Gusii.
On the negative side, it has led to an increase in crime evidenced by the mushrooming vigilante groups in the county, with the killer Sungu Sungu causing the greatest havoc.
But the surge in population has also forced the people to look at alternative means of earning livelihoods, forcing them to move away from the traditional reliance on maize, coffee and tea farming.
Prof Oeri Tumbo, one of the sons of the county, has an explanation for the business orientation of the Gusii people and their outward migration:
“We have been forced into it by nature,” he said.
“Pressure on the land makes us go to seek property elsewhere and those who remain behind have to be innovative to survive,” said the former principal of the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus.
Mr Mogambi Mogaka, who honed his skills among the diaspora in the US before returning to invest in Kisii adds:
“If you try to analyse the communities people who are enterprising come from, you will find common characteristics.”
He named them as the Kikuyu, the Gusii, Asians and Somalis. Mr Mogaka said their regions are beset by land pressure, overpopulation or civil turmoil like Somalia.
“These problems make them think on their feet,” he said.
Taxi driver in New York
The migration is not only to other parts of Kenya but also to Europe and North America where the Gusii have thrived in business, the corporate world, academia and even in politics.
In countries like the United States and United Kingdom, the Gusii are heavily represented.
In the US, for example, major cities like Texas, Atlanta, and Minneapolis/St Pauls have significant Gusii populations.
In Canada, one James Atebe is the mayor of Mission, a town in British Columbia near Vancouver. Though he had become a Canadian citizen, the new Constitution now allows dual citizenship. He worked in Mission for years as a city planner before becoming a councillor and finally being elected mayor.
In Minnesota, there is a cluster of about 10,000 while in Washington it is easy to find a Gusii taxi driver.
They are also in Australia, mainly in Perth.
They are in the Middles East too, of all places in Iraq where they went as security personnel employed by an American company.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, they trade in hides and skins, timber and soapstone artifacts from their Tabaka homeland.
In Kenya, they are in the Rift Valley and Nairobi’s satellite towns of Rongai, Ngong, Kiserian, Isinya and Kitengela.
This diaspora never completely cuts its links with the homeland, sending back cash and investing in business.
The result is that Kisiis today are regarded as one of the most economically active communities in Kenya. They have investments in banking, transport, agriculture, real estate, manufacturing and many other sectors.
Some of the old big time Kisii business people include former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae, whose flagship group Kabansora is in flour milling and manufacture of animal feeds. Mr Nyachae also owns substantial shares in Credit Bank which has a branch in Kisii.
Former MPs Hezron Manduku and Stephen Manoti are also heavy hitters.
Manduku is a major investor in the health sector with hospitals not just in Kisii but also in other towns including Nairobi while Manoti is in the hospitality, real estate and transport sectors.
But there are also new kids on the block who have come in a big way.
They include Mr Mogaka, whose business empire ranges from wholesale, retail and manufacturing.
His company, Ouru Power, makes torch batteries and his brand, Kingpower, is the only local challenge to Eveready. It has found a market locally and in Tanzania.
Mr Mogaka partnered with the Chinese to set up his plant in Kisii Town, believed to be the only local manufacturing venture in the county.
Unlike in many towns in Kenya, business in Kisii is mostly controlled by the Gusii themselves. From small kiosks, supermarkets, fuel stations and soapstone business, the Gusii are always determined to seize any trade opportunity.
And they have another compelling culture of calling each other to join them wherever they settle.
“They are not scared of venturing into unknown territories and wherever they go they will call each other because they believe that their security is in numbers,’ Prof Tumbo says.
Their desire to own property everywhere runs through from right from professors down to masons.
The accountants factor
Then there is what has become to be known as the accountants factor.
For long the Kisii have dominated this profession in the civil service and headed many district treasuries.
They have used these positions to deliver government businesses to their people enhancing their entrepreneurial skills.
Prominent in their homeland is the wealthy Kisii Farmers Union which owns substantial property including residential houses around Kisii.
Transport companies operate from Kisii to various parts of the country: to Nairobi, Kisumu and even in Eldoret.
Three of them, Transline, Nyanza and Smart Shuttles operate like sacco societies.
Individuals buy their vehicles and join to use the company’s name.
This entrepreneurial instincts plus the huge human resources they have will be the Gusii’s biggest asset in the new Kisii county. It is a county that is bound to become one of the richest.
Additional reporting by Samuel Siringi