Isiolo eyes new city status with airport upgrade

Building works at the Isiolo International Airport site in 2011. The project, part of Vision 2030, paves the way for plans to convert the town to a resort city.  File
Building works at the Isiolo International Airport site in 2011. The project, part of Vision 2030, paves the way for plans to convert the town to a resort city. File 

The planned opening of an alternative economic corridor in northern Kenya starts in earnest Friday with the launch of the newly-built Isiolo Airport.

The Sh900 million facility is the first step in Kenya’s multi-billion shilling journey in one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects since independence.

Northern Construction, a private contractor, is set to upgrade the airport to international status, firmly anchoring work on the planned transformation of Isiolo into a resort city that is envisaged in Kenya’s development blueprint — Vision 2030.

Isiolo, located on the edge of agriculturally rich Meru County, is the epicentre of the multi-billion shilling effort to open up northern Kenya, landlocked Ethiopia and South Sudan with the building of a standard gauge railway line, a highway and an oil pipeline that runs from the Lamu port to South Sudan.

President Kibaki is presiding over the launch of the airport two weeks after he broke the ground for construction work to begin on Konza technopolis — another Vision 2030 flagship project located 60km south of Nairobi.

Planned civil works at Isiolo airport will extend the runway from the current 1.4km to 2.5km, and expand the apron — where aircraft can park and refuel — to accommodate nine large planes instead of three.

The airport upgrade also includes building of a 4,500 square metres passenger terminal with a capacity to handle 125,000 passengers annually.

The airport’s taxiways, cargo terminus, parking area, fencing, fire station, meteorological centre, hangar, control tower and staff quarters are also earmarked for fresh construction or expansion.

“We are increasing the airport’s capacity and services to international status for the benefit of the region’s economy,” said Kenya Airports Authority director general Stephen Gichuki.

The authority said that the runway could be extended to 4km in future moving the facility to the league of Moi International Airport in Mombasa and Eldoret Airport, whose runways measure 3.5km each, and above Kisumu at 2.1km.

The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the country’s largest airport, has the longest runway at 4.1km.

On completion, Isiolo airport will handle heavy commercial aircraft and maximum takeoff weight.

“Expanding the runway means a Boeing 737 would be able to land at the airport when the upgrade is complete. Only smaller aircraft, categorised as class B, can land at the airport currently,” said KAA corporate communications manager Dominic Ngigi.

The airport is expected to play a pivotal role in unlocking the potential of the northern tourism circuit that has a rich menu of attractions. It is also expected to open upper eastern and northern Kenya to air travel through direct flights to other parts of the country.

“Tourists would, for instance, be able to fly direct from Mombasa to Samburu National Park,” said Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers chief executive Mike Macharia.

Infrastructure experts said that the building of Kenya’s second transport corridor is critical to wealth creation and improvement of livelihoods. “It is a sign of commitment to bring forth the promises of Vision 2030.

Politically, this is also commitment to deal with the historical past as it shifts Kenya’s development profile away from the Mombasa-Malaba transport,” said Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis infrastructure division head Eric Aligula.

He said the move also sets the stage for increased public-private partnerships (PPP) along the new corridor.

“It is a classic PPP case where the government invests in critical infrastructure and the private sector invests in business,” Dr Aligula.

Kenya Private Sector Alliance chairman Patrick Obath likened the project to the recent launch of Konza city, saying it moves the discourse from design to implementation.

Kenya has more recently embarked on shifting the bulk of its tourism sector activity away from traditional beach tourism and seeks to spice up its tourism credentials with new offers such as historical and cultural tourism.

Northen Kenya is home to Turkana’s fossil museums and diverse cultures of local population. The northern circuit is mainly made up of Meru, Kora and Marsabit National Parks as well as Samburu, Buffalo Springs, Shaba, Bisanadi, Losai, Marsabit, Rahole and Mwingi National Reserves.

The government has been marketing eight massive Lamu corridor projects estimated to cost $24 billion or six per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The projects are all part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET). The project involves building of an oil pipeline, rail and road network connecting Kenya’s sea port to neighbouring Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The LAPSSET Corridor Authority, a new parastatal, based in Nairobi with field offices in Lamu, Isiolo, Nadapal, Marsabit and Moyale, would manage the initiative. 

Through the projects, Kenya seeks to become a top infrastructure and PPP market in Africa.