Ideas & Debate

How to revive the Nyanza economy

Kisumu Cotton Mills
The defunct Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) one of the many dead industries in the region that are yet to be revived to create jobs. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

When I was a young oil executive in the early 1980s, I loved driving to Kisumu and take rides around the former Nyanza province. And there were a lot of economic activities to see especially agriculture, industries, fishing, marine transport and scenic tourism spots. Most of these activities were either allowed to shrink or close down, mostly in the 1990s as was happening in many parts of Kenya during that time of economic decay...

The recent display of commitment by top political leadership (President Uhuru and Raila Odinga) to revive the economy around Lake Victoria is an opportunity to be seriously exploited. A revived Nyanza economy will contribute a lot to the local populations, and also to the rest of Kenya through trade and increased national tax revenues.

The recent launch of a project to clear the hyacinth weed and dredge the silted Kavirondo Gulf is a remarkable starting point. I roughly recall the weed appearing in mid 1990s, but somehow we gave up efforts to contain it.

Cleaning up the gulf will enable basic lake transport to resume, with opportunities to link up with the other Lake towns of Port Bell, Musoma, Mwanza and Bukoba and this will be good for regional trade, tourism and of course large scale commercial fishing.

As was in the old days, Nyanza can reclaim the fish export market, besides bridging the national fish supply gap. Yes, the “blue economy” was fully there in Nyanza and it can be revived if sufficiently resourced.


The hyacinth was not the only economic adversity to visit Nyanza. Collapse of commercial scale agriculture and agro-industries has substantially reduced job opportunities and household incomes. Incidentally, this is not different from what is happening elsewhere in Kenya.

Yes there were the prolific rice paddies of Ahero which competed quite well with the Mwea rice in Kirinyaga County. The scenic sugar belt was green with healthy crop which fed successful factories at Muhoroni, Chemelil, Miwani, and Awendo which are now either limping or closed.

Specifically, the Muhoroni sugar complex used to supply ethanol for a mandated 10 percent gasohol blend for Nairobi motorists, the only ever commercial scale bio-fuel project in Kenya. The factory also made other bio-chemical by-products.

The biggest opportunity for the area is not the water in the Lake, but the missed opportunity of not using for irrigation the river water before it flows into the lake. My travels around Lake Vitoria have always convinced me that the combined flow of water into the lake from the Nyanza rivers (Nzoia, Yala, Nyando, Sondu Miriu, Migori etc ) is many times more than the total water inflows into the lake from Tanzania, Uganda and River Kagera. We are, however, the country that benefits the least from the Lake.

The level of commercial irrigation in Nyanza is minimal. The sugar and rice we import from Egypt under the banner of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) are grown using the same waters we are putting into Lake Victoria and River Nile.

There is no excuse whatsoever for the low lying areas of Nyanza not to use river waters to turn the region into Kenya’s food-basket besides exporting surpluses.

Kenya Breweries Limited has set the ball rolling with their sorghum-to-beer agro-industry business model. The Kisumu brewery that had collapsed in 1990s will soon re-open to make beer from an elaborate supply chain of sorghum out-growers and beer distribution enterprises. This is a perfect example of agro-industrial value addition.

The Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) similarly collapsed about the same time. Again, it is never too late to revive cotton farming, ginneries and textile mills to regenerate jobs and incomes for Nyanza populations.

These narratives of collapsed sugar, cotton, rice, and fishing activities in Nyanza are a reminder that they can be recreated if commitment and resources are activated. And this, no doubt, equally applies to other parts of Kenya with similar over-looked opportunities from collapsed or limping economic sectors. The county governments should seriously work on these lost opportunities.

This article is intended to specifically reinforce the manufacturing and food security messages in the Big Four agenda.