The 30-kilometre ride to Webuye from Bungoma through the greening sugarcane farms and ripening maize gives little indication of the misery and gloom that now hangs over the paper manufacturing town like a pall.
Before Pan African Paper Mill shut its doors — sending 1,600 employees home and leaving 40,000 indirect beneficiaries destitute— the town had been characterised by the frenetic bustle that defines every industrial town.
A busy, noisy market, blaring music from overcrowded bars, dozens of revving multi-coloured motorbikes and matatus and a cultural centre.
While Pan Paper was alive, the thick white smoke that billowed from its chimneys and the strong smell of sulphur from its water recycling ponds had become Webuye’s defining features.
That is no more. The smoke and the smell are gone and the hum of the machines has been replaced by a ghostly silence.
Only a few matatus ply the Webuye-Bungoma route and the town that barely slept now goes to bed at seven o’clock since the factory was closed in February.
In a span of just eight months, 4,000 people have left this hamlet of 28,000 people.
They have gone with a huge chunk of purchasing power.
The Kenya Power and Lighting company has disconnected power from many of Webuye’s homes because residents cannot afford the bills.
Schools that Pan Paper supported are scheduled to close down this month even as small businesses continue their migration out of Webuye into neighbouring sugarcane towns of Bungoma and Nzoia.
At Pan Paper High School — one of the biggest learning institutions in the town — the number of students has dropped from 300 in January to an insignificant 37, who are scheduled to sit their Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Education from Wednesday.
“People here are afraid to mention the word Pan Paper,” said Michael Wafula, a trader in Webuye, who is among the thousands of residents who still harbour bitterness at the factory’s closure and whose hopes that the government will live up to its promise to reopen it have slowly frittered.
Workers who were suddenly sent home have given up hope of ever receiving a pension or savings from the Factory Sacco.
Nine have since February died from ailments that health officials associate with depression.
Webuye’s is a story of how the collapse of just one player in Kenya’s thinly spread corporate sector can change the fortunes of thousands of people.