For 40 years, Isaac Mwaniki has seen traders and investors come and leave a few months after landing at the Ol Jabet market in Laikipia County.
Not that he was doing better business than they were, but he had no option, with no other place to call home. He also had no coin left to facilitate his departure from the swampy town.
The trader was full of regret seeing the success of his age mates and younger traders, some of whom were driving expensive cars or trucks loaded with cargo.
He bought a farm and plots where he constructed commercial buildings.
At that time, Ol Jabet had less than 10 shops, and investing there consumed all his savings. He has had to live from hand to mouth, with his tenants renting and vacating in three months or less.
“There was no business and the tenants had a hard time raising the rent. I sympathised with them, although I was also suffering,” he said.
With time, the town became a residential area with rental houses occupied by workers at nearby flower farms. They left in the rainy season when the town was flooded with water from surrounding hills of Kaiti, Siloni, Maili Saba, Bondeni and Makenzi and others.
But the situation has improved in the past three months after the town was included in the Smart Towns Initiative by the Laikipia government, with investors scrambling for space even before the facelift programme is completed, giving residents hopes for better days ahead.
On the street leading to the Ol Jabet Police Station and Ol Jabet Heath Centre, an area that used to be completely inaccessible, now stands a Sh2.5 million flour milling plant fully fitted with modern equipment and with milling and packaging capacity of over 10 tonnes a day.
“I have taken advantage of the infrastructural development that has made the town accessible. The factory will start operations in January, when we expect to acquire all government licences and permits,” said Mr Philip Njomo, a new investor.
“We plan to employ about 20 youths permanently, with more casuals, but we hope to create more indirect jobs, including in the transport industry for those supplying us with maize and delivering our flour. It will also attract a population that is healthy for local businesses.”
Smart Town Initiative aims to upgrade towns and small market centres to grow the Laikipia economy fourfold in the medium term.
The aim is to trigger urbanisation by providing space, utilities, and facilities and modernising the centres into small neatly planned towns.
Ol Jabet is more advantaged by its location on the busy Nyahururu-Rumuruti-Maralal highway.
The programme has given the long-abandoned and loathed market that has swallowed up billions of shillings from investors a new look, with well-planned streets and bitumen roads and walkways.
There will also be streetlights, street addresses, multi-channel fibre-optic cable for high-speed internet, landscaping and other improvements.
With high-speed internet cable cutting across the small town, the county is already wooing investors to set up business processes, outsourcing centres, financial services, food processing, and real estate development.
Other towns that have undergone regeneration under the Smart Town Initiative are Rumuruti, Sipili, Kinamba, Nanyuki and Nyahururu.
County officials have also lined up several other small centres for reconstruction through an infrastructure bond. They include Karuga, Doldol, Pesi, Naibor, Kalalu and Wiyumiririe.
“By building these small market centres, the government wants to trigger their growth into big, well-planned urban centres by providing space, utilities and facilities that support manufacturing and the creation of well-paying jobs,” said Ms Esther Gathoni, the Ol Jabet smart town manager.
Other newly established and upcoming businesses enticed by the model in Ol Jabet include supermarkets and petrol stations.
Ms Gathoni said several saccos and banks are looking for premises, targeting the surrounding farming community in a county whose GDP stands slightly above Sh100 billion.
With the smart town model adopted, Governor Ndiritu Muriithi is optimistic that the county’s GDP would grow to Sh400 billion in the medium term. That will be achieved by increasing productivity through manufacturing, and tripling the area under irrigation to 50,000 acres by providing water for production, mining and electricity reticulation.
With proper infrastructure, the water drains into a natural dam a few kilometres from Ol Jabet, a place that has been identified for recreational activities and fishing expeditions with boats.
“The dam is a potential area for private investors in the hotel industry. The government is creating a conducive environment for such investors with all the support they need to realise their dreams,” Ms Gathoni said.