The puzzle of costly modern market projects turning into white elephants

Uhuru Business Park in Kisumu. The projects have now become white elephants, with many governors grappling with questions of how to utilise the empty spaces even as congestion of roads and other major streets by traders continues to become a challenge.

A market built in all its magnificence but no trader wants to use it. That is the picture that emerges in many areas across Kenya. Over the past couple of years, the national and county governments have pumped billions of shillings into the construction of markets to accommodate traders and decongest major towns.

The markets, each costing millions of shillings, in such counties as Kisii, Kisumu, Nyeri, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Kakamega, Busia, Uasin Gishu and Baringo were also built to promote trade and serve as centres of commerce. But months and even years after they were built to accommodate the thousands of traders, most of them remain largely unoccupied.

Most traders have cited the location, the distance from major roads serving their customers and the manner in which spaces and stalls were allocated as some of the reasons why they have decided to stay away. The projects have now become white elephants, with many governors grappling with questions of how to utilise the empty spaces even as congestion of roads and other major streets by traders continues to become a challenge.

Partial benefit

In Kisii, for instance, the Nyakoe Modern Market which cost Sh107 million remains unused after traders in Kitutu Chache refused to occupy it. The project was aimed at housing thousands of traders, but this has not been the case. Instead, the benefit the business community is drawing from it is street lighting and a car park.

The market was the second one to be funded by the national government in Kisii County after the Daraja Mbili Market, which had been commissioned. No reason has been given on why traders have not started using the facility, yet they continue grappling with the vagaries of the weather while undertaking their business.

In Kakamega, traders and matatu operators in Mumias have yet to start enjoying services from a modern market and a bus park, four months after it was officially opened by former Governor Wycliffe Oparanya. The Sh180 million project was funded by the World Bank under the Urban Development Programme as a flagship project to enhance connectivity between Kakamega and neighbouring counties like Bungoma, Busia, Kisumu and Siaya.

The facility consists of a management block comprising five offices and one boardroom, a lactation room, a restaurant, three ablution blocks, and ticketing offices. The bus park can accommodate 16 buses, 36 matatus and 48 taxis and a mini market with additional 13 stalls.

Mumias Traders’ Association chairman Yusuf Otimi said the market was opened before it was completed. “Some parts have not been completed. The contractor is doing final touches before traders and matatu operators will be moved from the current market and bus stage to the modern facility,” said Mr Otimi.

In Kisumu, the Sh600 million Uhuru Business Park Market built by the national government has not be occupied. The project is one of the major fruits of the handshake between former President Uhuru Kenyatta and Azimio leader Raila Odinga.

It was to accommodate traders who were displaced from Lwang’ni, Winmart, Varsity Plaza, Akamba Line, Fontana, Konyando, KPLC, Bank Street, Lake Market to pave the way for the expansion of the Kisumu Port. Some of the traders argue that the location is too far for their customers.

Despite attempts to divert the routes used by public service vehicles towards the market, it does not attract many customers, making the traders shy away from the facility. There have also been questions on how the spaces were allocated, with many traders claiming some of those who benefitted were not affected during the eviction and are only cronies of senior county officials.

Still in Kisumu, traders at the Kibuye Market will have to wait longer for the construction spearheaded by Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o’s administration to be completed.

The upgrade of the market began in 2020 at the peak of Covid-19. Traders were relocated to pave the way for its expansion. It was to be equipped with modern toilets, electricity and shop outlets under the Sh4.5 billion Kisumu Urban Project funded by the French government.

In Mt Kenya, several markets have stalled while others have become white elephants after traders refused to occupy them. In Meru, the building of 10 markets in 2010 and 2016 was expected to help farmers access markets and increase earnings from their produce. But the facilities have remained idle after traders refused to occupy them.

Cold storage

Built at a cost of over Sh300 million, the modern markets were billed as the panacea for ills facing farmers, including kicking exploitative middlemen out of the value chain as some of them would be fitted with cold storage facilities. Five fresh produce markets and three horticulture collection centres were constructed in Imenti South, Meru Central and Imenti North through the Smallholder Horticulture Marketing Programme (Shomap).

Other markets were built as part of the Economic Stimulus Package in 2010 at Thimangiri, Kithaene, Rwamukaki, Kariene, Nkubu, Kithaku, Kanyakine, Ntharene, Mugambone and Miruri-iri. The eight facilities were put up at a cost of Sh248.5 million with the aim of improving the marketing of fresh produce. Only two markets at Kariene in Imenti Central and Thimangiri in Imenti North were opened but are rarely used by traders.

‘Funny’ places

Besides the markets built by Shomap, the defunct local authorities had constructed modern facilities at Kanyakine and Nkubu towns at a cost of about Sh50 million each. But while some of the markets were poorly designed, others were built in the wrong places where customers would not access them, according to traders. “They did not consult us before building them. We just saw some structures coming up in funny places and we were told they were markets but we could not go there because customers would not come there,” said Ms Purity Kathambi, a resident of Kariene, Imenti Central.

The buildings are getting dilapidated, with some of them vandalised. Miruri-iri Fresh Produce Market, which cost Sh38 million, is deserted and dust-covered.

The Nkubu Market, which was built for Sh130 million and is complete with a standby generator, is almost in ruins after some of the shelves were vandalised.

In Tharaka Nithi County, Sh20 million fresh produce markets at Kajiunduthi in Maara and Gatunga in Tharaka have been idle for the last 12 years.

On the Coast, a decision by the High Court stopping the opening of the Jombani Market in Kwale means traders seeking to use the market may have to wait longer.

The order was issued by Justice Njoki Mwangi pending the conclusion of an application by the construction company End to End Ltd. The judge directed the regional police commander to ensure the orders are complied with and peace is restored.

The court also reinstated interim orders barring the county government from re-advertising, re-tendering, subcontracting or in any way interfering with the contract for the construction of Fresh Produce Wholesale Market at Kombani-Waa Ng’ombeni ward in Kwale County.

And in the North Rift, most counties are losing huge sums of money in projects initiated under the Economic Stimulus Programme (ESP) more than 10 years ago. Several markets have turned into white elephants after the national government pumped billions of shillings.

Uasin Gishu, for instance, is losing huge sums of revenue in unused market stalls worth millions of shillings constructed to decongest Eldoret’s central business district area under the ESP.

The over Sh27 million World Bank-funded markets in Huruma and Kapsaret wards have remained underutilised for almost 15 years as traders avoid the site because of its location.

Residents say the devolved unit needs to tap the economic potential of the markets to generate additional revenues for development. “The 180 spaces at the Huruma Market are still underutilised after some of the former councillors allocated most slots to their friends instead of genuine traders,” said David Maina, from Huruma estate that neighbours the market

The now defunct Eldoret Municipal Council had bought the two-acre parcel for markets at Sh2 million. “The former civic body used to collect Sh800 million annually and the county government has the potential to raise Sh1.05 billion if such projects are properly utilised,” disclosed a senior official at the county revenue department who requested not to be named.

The official said most residents are opposed to plans to transfer hawkers from the town centre.

“The two markets should provide a multiplier effect in expediting the expansion of the town for effective delivery of quality services,” said Mary Kosgei from Kapsaret Market.

The county government allocated Sh42.8 million in the last financial year for the renovation of the markets but is generating little revenue owing to the poor state of the structures. 

In the last financial year, the county collected Sh792 million against a target of Sh1 billion.

In Baringo, some of the stalled projects funded through ESP include the Sh10 million modern fresh produce market in Baringo North. The project failed to pick up early following disagreements about where it should be located, with a section of the community threatening to take legal action over its location.

The locals complained that the plot identified in Kabartonjo town was community land. They argued that the plot was historically set aside for traditional ceremonies such as marriages, initiation, and public barazas, and the unilateral decision of the now defunct Baringo County Council to convert it into a public market was unacceptable.

Businessman Charles Kulei, who is the chairman of the open-air market operators, accused those opposed to the market of playing “cheap politics” with lives, claiming that the clique was bitter when they failed to be involved in the project implementation committee. “They thought they would get a chance to enrich themselves from the project,” said Mr Kulei.

At least two markets in Nakuru Town East and Nakuru Town West are underutilised as traders have refused to use them, citing various reasons. Kiratina in Nakuru Town East has been abandoned by small-scale traders as the land where it is constructed is reportedly under dispute while the toilets are substandard.

Misuse of funds

“This market, which was constructed without due diligence, is a white elephant and misuse of public funds as it is not used,” said Mr Daniel Kamau, a trader at Free Area Market.

Subsequently, traders have moved to the Free Area Market, which is already congested and has no space for new traders.

“This market, if upgraded, could be a big relief to Nakuru Wakulima Market, which is already congested,” said another trader.

Ponda Mali market, which was built before devolution, is also another rotting facility as many traders have shunned it. Traders say the market is located away from the thriving Ponda Mali trading centre and many buyers rarely visit it as it lacks many items. 

“Traders are now selling their goods at the roadside near Ponda Mali, with some converting sewerage lines as their selling points,” said another trader.

Reporting by Rushdie Oudia, Shaban Makokha, Wycliffe Nyaberi, Angeline Ochieng, Victor Rabala, Philip Muyanga, Alex Njeru, Gitonga Marete, Francis Mureithi and Barnabas Bii