A few years ago, Samburu town in Kwale County was rated among the poorest in the country, with no single industry and locals burning charcoal and farming livestock for survival.
With climate change and a drought, residents suffered, their animals dying due to lack of water and pasture.
However, Samburu’s face is now changing since the opening of one of the biggest steel manufacturing plants in Kenya and the second largest in Africa after South Africa’s.
Driving along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, one cannot ignore the changes that the Devki Steel Mills, located in Samburu-Chengoni ward, has brought.
As other towns along the highway have suffered a persistent economic crisis due to the shift of cargo haulage from the road to the standard gauge railway, the once sleepy town of Samburu has flourished in the past few years.
Construction of the steel plant, nine kilometres from the Samburu town centre, started in 2018, whereas operations started last year.
Since opening, Devki has created jobs for thousands of people, helping to bridge the poverty gap. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that Kwale has a poverty gap of 41.8 per cent compared to a national average of 12.2 per cent.
The plant, according to Devki Group Administrator Peter Paul, has created 2,500 direct jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs in various sectors in the region.
Devki mostly hires locally, with about 80 per cent of its employees being sourced from Kwale. Among them are engineers.
In addition, the value of the land in the arid areas of Samburu and Kinango has increased significantly in the past few years.
In 2018, an acre of land next to the factory went for Sh200,000, but today, a similar piece, which is hard to get, can cost as much as Sh5 million, according to resident Ibrahim Nur.
“The cost of land along the road in Kinango, which was largely ignored as a remote area, has increased five-fold, with an 80 by 100 feet plot going for as high as Sh350,000 due to high demand,” Mr Nur said.
Mr Paul further said that owing to the high demand for support services due to the high number of people who have moved to Samburu, it is expected to rival Mariakani, located 23 kilometres away, in size.
Since the establishment of the factory, the number of petrol stations, for instance, has increased from one to five.
Regarding this, Mr Nur said: “In 2018, Samburu had just one market day, but this has increased to two while the number of police stations has risen from one to five.
Terry Ngojo, who runs a wines and spirits shop in Samburu, says that although the rent has doubled, her daily sales have increased threefold in the past few months.
“I have been operating this business for the past five years, but this last year I recorded a triple increase in sales, so I am planning to open another outlet here,” Ngojo said.
Jecinta Mnjala, a vegetable vendor, has shifted base from Mariakini to Samburu, her home following a higher demand for vegetables and foodstuff.
“There were instances where people from Samburu would go as far as Mariakani on market days to buy basic foodstuff that included vegetables. This is no longer the case. I have also opened a food kiosk adjacent to the new plant," she said.
John Kioko, who runs a guest house, also said his earnings have increased. He has 10 rooms, which hardly got full before the plant was established.
“There are so many visitors, especially on market days, when I record full occupancy. The rates have also doubled - from Sh500 to about Sh1,200 a night,” he said.
In terms of corporate social responsibility, the company notes that besides seeking a strategic location for its operations, its desire was to improve lives.
“Apart from the strategic location due to the Port of Mombasa, the highway and railway line, the desire to uplift the standard of living for the poorest county in the country was another driving force,” said Mr Paul.
Firstly, Devki has introduced a feeding programme in five primary schools in the county, in addition to feeding the 2,500 people working in the factory. There are also plans to sink boreholes to help resolve Kwale’s water shortage problems, according to Mr Paul.
Secondly, the group administrator said, Devki plans to expand the plant by creating a furnace and a rolling unit, which is expected to increase the number of direct jobs to 3,500 by October.
The modern integrated steel plant is expected to revive the iron and steel industry and drive infrastructure, manufacturing and affordable housing development projects that will transform the lives of millions of Kenyans.
This was one of the factors that informed the construction of the plant, Mr Paul said, adding they expect to lower the cost of building and save the economy Sh50 billion every year.
The plant has the capacity to produce 500,000 tonnes of steel, which will help Kenya lessen the importation of industrial steel products, largely from South Africa and China, as well as scrap metal, for the manufacture of steel products.
Imports of iron and steel have risen steadily in the past five years, with a compounded annual growth rate of 10.9 per cent, from 1.63 million tonnes in 2017 to 2.47 million in 2021, according to data from the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA).
“We have invested in roofing iron sheets and a cement plant in a bid to help Kenyans afford to construct affordable houses. Our entry in cement manufacturing has had a significant impact on the drop in the cost of cement,” Mr Paul said.
Devki expects to increase its employment figures from 10,000 to 20,000 in 2027.
The official further said the firm was are rolling out a clinker factory at West Pokot, a go-down in Kisumu, and a cement grinding facility in Eldoret.