Just like Las Vegas in the United States is renowned for gambling, shopping, fine dining, entertainment and nightlife, so is Kenol town in Murang’a County.
Only that the Vegas-style life in Kenol is crude, dangerous and unstructured, as it is cartel-controlled and does more harm than it helps.
The town was founded about 22 years ago, but the name was uncreative, because residents appropriated it from the area’s pioneer fuel station – Kenol.
The station was started by William Mbote, the area’s chairman of freedom party Kanu. It became so popular as a stopover on the Thika-Makutano road that it helped cement the name among residents and visitors.
Its skyline is growing rapidly, and even shady developers suspected to be in the business of money laundering are investing dirty cash in the town.
"Detectives are [looking into] two highrise buildings being built by a character with money said to have been looted from the Kigumo constituency National Government Constituency Development Fund (NG-CDF) leading to his sacking,” said a senior sleuth on the Murang'a County security committee
“The town has even foreigners with drug-related cases in court buying property there and developing it."
The town has both residential and commercial rental spaces. A single residential room goes for between Sh1,000 and Sh3,000, and a bedsitter for Sh5, 000 to Sh8,000. Commercial spaces rent for between Sh500 and Sh1,000 per square foot, and lodgings for between Sh300 and Sh3,000 per night.
It is served by, among other financial institutions, Amica and Mentor saccos, Kenya Women Microfinance Bank, KCB Bank and Equity. The dominant enterprises are bars, hotels, lodgings, small-scale traders, money transfer agents and brokerage firms, especially in land and building materials.
The growth of the town was boosted by the setting up of government offices and sanctioning of land subdivisions that brought change of user from agricultural to commercial status.
With time, the town became a melting pot and a convergence point for people travelling to Murang'a, Nyeri, Meru, Embu and Isiolo, with several tempting nyama choma joints welcoming them. Just as the good converge in the town, so do the bad boys and girls.
It was upgraded to a municipality last year and hopes are high that the status will come with better infrastructure.
Some of the recently proposed developments that have increased the fortunes of Kenol are a courthouse and the ongoing building of a major highway that will extend to Makutano, Sagana through to Marua in Nyeri County.
This market centre is where the late freedom fighter and former Kandara MP Bildad Kaggia had a home. He operated a posho mill until he died poor on March 7, 2005.
Kembi Gitura, the area’s senator from 2013 to 2017, and Elias Mbau, the Maragua MP from 1997 to 2013, had pushed to change the name of the town to Bildad Kaggia or some other name, but the efforts yielded nothing, as Kenol was hard to kill from the lips of residents, and so it remained.
Kenol is 55km from Nairobi and marks the end of the 50km eight-lane Thika Road. It is the seat of power for Murang’a South sub-county and is awash with government officers, brokers, and criminals of all shades – and you can relax over a glass of chang’aa in the backstreets as you gamble or sample contraband from thieves.
The town does not have a reliable supply of clean water and sewage disposal infrastructure.
Area MP Mary Wa Maua says the World Bank is helping to build a Sh1.4 billion sewerage plant so that area landlords can meet the public health standards of sanitation.
The town does not have a bus park either, forcing public service vehicle to utilise road reserves for loading and unloading passengers – matatu gangs finding an effective hiding place in the confusion.
The town also lacks a structured market, forcing traders to operate along highways, occasionally causing mourning when some are run over by speeding vehicles.
On the better side, the town is home to several decent entertainment joints on the Kenol-Sagana road, with more coming up recently on the Kenol-Karugia road, where drink spikers and armed robbers make patronage a living deadly thrill.
The town has several gangs that control its economy, key among them pineapple thieves who profit from the nearby American-owned Del Monte plantations, highway robbers, narcotics traders, brewers of illicit alcohol and cattle rustlers.
Several accidents involving military officers transporting immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia have happened in the town and bhang from Moyale is sneaked in and occasionally seized. The town is also a market for stolen horticultural products, including vegetables, fruits and bananas.
Security agents once in a while surface with news of arrested males from neighbouring countries slaughtering stolen livestock in the town’s abandoned buildings or those under construction. Stolen poultry also gets a ready market in the town.
Pineapple theft gangs are an international concern because they strain bilateral pacts between Nairobi and Washington, said Ithanga-Kakuzi Deputy County Commissioner Angela Makau.
It is not once that the US ambassador to Kenya has visited the area seeking a lasting solution for the thievery on the plantations.
“It is true that this is a big dilemma because the gangs steal the pineapples and proceed to open a big market to sell them in Kenol town. We have been holding joint security meetings with Murang’a South security and the plantation over the issue,” she said.
Some of the stolen pineapples are sold outside the gates of the sub-county security offices.
Del Monte, Ms Makau said, complains that it loses harvests worth Sh6 million per week “and the government is supporting the company in every way possible to tame that loss”.
Asked whether the Kenol gangs are too powerful for the government, Ms Makau retorted: “No, the government cannot be overwhelmed by criminals. There is no safe haven for criminals and you know that.
“This company sits on government land, employs more than 8,000 of our people, pays huge taxes to our government. We must support it as a government.”
But while she says the Kenol gangs cannot overwhelm the government, Murang’a South Police Commander Alexander Shikondi concedes that the town is a gangland.
He cites land fraud, stock theft and burglaries as common features of the town.
“We are investing more in the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to crack the gangs … We are also profiling criminals and pushing for their arrests and prosecutions. We have intensified patrols, raids and ambushes and the holding of public barazas,” he said.
As security organs seek a solution, the thugs are having a field day, breaking into established businesses and killing them through thefts, robberies and murders.
Only last month, thugs broke into an Anglican church and stole screens, a public address system and other accessories.
They first attacked guards on duty before gaining entry in the wee hours. They seemed to be familiar with the church building and knew what lay where, said Murang’a South Anglican Church Bishop Julius Karani.
"We suspect that some of our brethren were involved. Even though our screens were well secured, the thugs took all their time as if they were doing an ordinary task. And we have the said night patrols…” he said.
The theft was the fourth to hit his church in three months, and all incidents were reported at the Kenol Police Station.
In the latest incident, the church items worth Sh1 million shillings, and Bishop Karani has challenged the area police to pull up their socks.
Other businesses that have suffered at the hands of Kenol gangs include gaming shops.
Mr Joseph Wachira had to close down his shop after it was broken into and he lost PlayStation equipment worth over Sh100,000.
“The metallic door of my shop was broken and the gang stole all my monitors and the appliances, and three months since I reported the matter, no arrest has been made,” he said.
Mr Thuo Njogu’s store was raided twice and he lost over Sh700,000 worth of investment.
“We blame the police – who else is supposed to ensure businesses are secure? It is as if the police themselves are encouraging the gangs to target gaming shops. Of the six that Kenol town had by July, none is operational after they were all raided,” he said.
Policing the town is made tougher because part of it is in Kandara sub-county, whereas the other is in Murang’a South. As it is, when police talk about jurisdiction in patrols, the controlling factor is safeguarding boundary interests, which, if disturbed, rivalry occurs that can easily lead to an exchange of friendly fire.
The Kandara side forms the most neglected part in development and hosts most of the gangs’ hideouts as rental spaces are cheaper.
It is also where all garbage from the town is dumped on a backstreet road and takes days before being collected, with the stench and blockage making life hard for tenants, traders, motorists and pedestrians.
Police patrol limitations make Kenol dangerous. For example, the nearest police station responsible for the Kandara side of the town is about three kilometres away.
“It is a town that, if you are silly, you will end up dead and you will be forgotten,” said Moses Kasyoki, who has lived in the town for the past 18 years.
“It is not once that in the recent past murdered bodies have been left displayed in corners of the town as if they were game. On March 29, 2021, residents woke up to find three bodies.”
One body had been tied to a pole outside the sub-county headquarters, the other two within 500 metres of the offices, he said.
“It is only recently that we woke up to find the body of a woman cut into four pieces and dumped near a school,” he said.
“For a passer-by, Kenol is just a town that is poorly planned, poorly developed but with fabulous entertainment joints, cool people and with investment opportunities.”
On October 4, 2020, supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta and those of Deputy President William Ruto clashed in the town, leaving two young people aged 15 and 21 dead.
In 2019, six people were arrested at a bar as they engaged in a bhang smoking competition. Gambling dens dot this town and the narcotics trade goes on in the backstreets buoyed by the inability of security agents to enforce alcohol laws.
“Police and administrators have completely failed to enforce alcohol laws in this town. You can walk into a bar any time of the 24 hours and at your own leisure take your drink and walk out to the uncertainties of the backstreets,” said Pastor Dorcas Kamene.
“We also have sex trade dens where all manner of vanity lifestyles happen unabated.”
Local clerics have held interdenominational prayers several times in the town to pray off the devil.
Kenol had been earmarked as a commercial hub of the Murang’a South region, said former Murang’a governor Mwangi wa Iria.
“With ample land and being strategically placed [on the route] to Nairobi, it was our imagination that Kenol could become our commercial hub,” he said.
“In fact, after devolution made Thika town – which is mostly owned by our county compatriots from Gatanga – we anticipated that Kenol would be our compensation if we developed it.”
But the government did not move in fast enough to acquire land in the area to keep it as stock for industrial parks. Instead area land owners introduced another aspect of the town that has led many defrauded realtors to shed tears.
Today, an acre in Kenol fetches between Sh10 million and Sh12 million, depending on the location, with many people working in nearby Nairobi, Thika, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Meru and Embu scouting for areas to build residential homes.
It is in the pursuit of land in this town that one can encounter vicious brokers who will sell you non-existent plots, or on the day you pay day, they will insist on hard cash, kidnap and proceed to rob you.
So sweet are land deals that some administrators would do everything possible to beat transfers.
“Two months ago, a senior administrator had to be tear-gassed out of office as he presided over an illegal land board sitting where he was approving luxurious property transfers … He was transferred and demoted. That is the magnitude of the honey in land deals here,” said a senior police officer.
Mr Joseph Thiong’o Chege, who owns Jotis Business Centre in Kenol, said “this town is nice, with good weather and opportunities”.
If Kenol had a spatial plan to guide development, the good governance that it deserves and inclusive decision-making, he said, it “can grow rapidly grow to pitch for city status within a very short time”.
To allow businesses to thrive, he said, the immediate needs in the town are water, a sewerage system, structured markets, a bus park, garbage collection, eradication of gangs and better security.
Mr Chege said “this is a Las Vegas that no one is taking seriously to midwife, and it can be home to thousands of jobs, [greater revenues for the county and national governments] and a world for entrepreneurs to discover unfettered growth”.
He urged Governor Irungu Kang’ata’s government to address corruption in approvals of development plans, haphazard tax regimes and the general lack of planning.
“We should have some order, not where you see sand trucks offloading and loading near eateries, timber yards coexisting with groceries and open-air traders suffering from losses when it rains and markets get waterlogged,” he said.