Postal service evolution in Kenya


The old post office building set up in 1906 in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Whereas Tommy Woods’ general store on Victoria Street (today’s Tom Mboya Street) in Nairobi may be considered by some to have been the first formal post office in the 1890s, postal services in Kenya date back to the 17th Century. After the Portuguese overpowered the Arabs on the East African coast, they installed a governor in Mombasa in 1592 and there is evidence of official correspondence between the port town and the outside world from 1610. The mail was carried by ship to the Arabian peninsular and India then transmitted overland to Europe.

Early letters from the interior of Kenya date back to around 1848 when missionaries sent their written correspondence by native runners (some with cleft sticks) to the coast for onward transmission by ship. By 1877, some letters from the coast were being taken north from Lamu to Aden by ships of the British Steam Navigation Company, although the bulk of mail was being transmitted through Zanzibar.

A system of African mail-runners was developed and expanded by the British East Africa Association, while individual traders and concessionaires organised their own system with unique stamps. The system of runners was slow, taking two weeks to reach Mombasa from Machakos but, normally reliable, except when, occasionally, lions made a meal of the runners.

A regular postal service in British East Africa, with headquarters in Zanzibar where the Postmaster General resided, was introduced in May 1890 and post offices were opened in Mombasa and the island of Lamu. When British East Africa became a protectorate of the Imperial government in 1895, it was admitted into the Postal Union.

Soon after construction of the Uganda Railway began in 1896, the importance of Mombasa increased necessitating the change of headquarters for the post office. In 1899, the postmaster general Thomas Edward Crew Remington moved to Mombasa from Zanzibar.

It will be recalled that during the construction of the railway between 1896 and 1901, a total of 35,000 Indian indentured workers were shipped to Kenya. One of the principal activities of the postal service was to remit the immense value of money orders to India on behalf of these workers.

In 1901 the postal services of British East Africa and Uganda were amalgamated, each country retaining separate accounts and stamps.

As the railway neared completion, Europeans came to British East Africa in large numbers resulting in great changes in postal services. The headquarters were moved from Mombasa to Nairobi, the new capital of the territory, and a new storied building was completed in 1906 on Sixth Avenue (today’s Kenyatta Avenue). Different coloured flags were flown from the roof of Nairobi Post Office to announce the arrival of a mail boat from Europe at Aden, to indicate that it was, therefore, time to post mail to go back to Europe, and also to show that mail had actually arrived at the post office and was ready for collection. Telegraph lines were extended in various directions and by 1909 there were 1,800 miles of line in Uganda and British East Africa.

The telegraph poles received unsolicited attention from wild animals with rhinoceros finding them excellent rubbing tools while the giraffe regularly cantered between the poles bringing them and the wires down to the ground.

The railway speeded up delivery of mail considerably particularly between the major towns throught, which it passed and about 30 post offices were opened in the early years of the last century. However, post offices beyond the railway line still relied on runners spaced at 30-mile intervals to deliver mail to outlying areas.

The post office started providing savings account services in 1910.

During the early period of colonial rule there was an unwritten rule that Africans could not open bank accounts which, in any event, they could not afford to maintain with their meagre earnings. As African wage earners increased in numbers, especially in urban areas, the post office became an ideal depository for their small savings and a convenient agent to send money to their loved ones in the rural areas. Many of them opened Post Office Savings accounts and were issued with a passbook where account transactions were entered. Money and Postal Orders, which were issued by the Post Office for a small fee known as poundage, became a popular financial instrument amongst African wage earners.

On 1 July 1933, the Postal Union of the three East African countries came into operation further strengthened by East African Customs and Postal Union which came into operation on 1 May 1935.

Although the three East African countries became independent States between 1961 and 1963, they continued to co-operate closely with one another in several ways including common postal services, which culminated in the formation of the East African Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (EAP&T) under the Treaty for East African Co-operation which came into effect on 1 December 1967. However, due to the break up of the East African Community in 1977, the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (KP&TC) was established.

READ: Post boxes, sending letters to cost more

The following year in 1978 the savings bank function was transformed into Postbank under an Act of Parliament to provide savings with tax-free interest.

Due to emerging global market and economic trends, efforts to delink postal services from telecommunications spearheaded by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in the 1980s, bore fruit in Kenya in 1999 when KP&TC was split into Postal Corporation of Kenya (PCK) and Telkom Kenya which dealt with the telecommunications aspect.

Today PCK has a network of 31 Head post Offices, 472 departmental postal outlets and 204 postal agencies providing mail service, parcel delivery (EMS), philately, electronic money transfer and the traditional Money and Postal orders.

In recent times, internet technology using e-mail and social media have all but rendered the mail box obsolete.