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Governors on the spot for spending billions on airstrips

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Kericho governor Paul Chepkwony (right) with former KCAA chairman Samuel Poghisio at Kerenga Airstrip in Kericho. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • County chiefs have got priorities upside down, say economists and public policy experts.

Governors are busy people who juggle both politics and technical steps of managing their counties that they want to lead “while others follow”.

But sometimes they also must deal with annoying limited participation from their constituents, who although the Constitition allows to assess budget proposals, avoid calls to discuss the figures and items like the plague.

Which brings to the fore the question of priorities at the counties, especially in the second leg of Devolution that was launched in 2013 under the 2010 Constitution.
One of the raging debates is whether counties should invest in building new airstrips or revamp the disused due to limited activity or shifting priorities.

While Kericho county governor Paul Chepkwony gave a thumbs-up to the revamp of the dusty Kerenga Airstrip once used by a private firm, the members of county assembly slashed its Sh100 million budget for this year to Sh25 million. The total budget for the project is Sh1 billion.

Prof Chepkwony and his team in Kericho aren’t alone in the desire by county governments to own airstrips, claiming they have produce and products to transport; they are also eyeing tourists who they say should use such facilities.

Those who support the Kerenga revamp say it will open up the economy of the region by providing a fast means of exporting farm produce while promoting tourism and hospitality industry.

But some experts say that Kericho is close to two international airports, namely Kisumu and Eldoret (which operate below capacity), let alone its proximity to Nairobi.

Narok County alone has three purposely to aid tourist movement, including Masai Mara (Keekorok Airport) and Maasai Mara (Mara Serena Airport) and Narok Airport.

Those earmarked for construction include Bomet’s Itembe airtsrip that a team of Kenya Airports Authority toured last September, Suneka and Kakamega airstrips which recently received Sh500 million and Sh200 million respectively from the national government for refurbishment.

In Nakuru, Lee Kinyanjui, the governor, says an airstrip is coming up in conjunction with the national government.

Homa Bay’s Kabunde Airstrip, which was upgraded in 2015, is up and running. It receives three flights in a week. Many other airstrips dot regions from A to Z. Frank Moi, an economist and businessman, said the Kericho airstrip would only serve as a local pride because there is no cargo or passengers to keep it abuzz.

READ: Kericho airstrip upgrade enters bumpy stretch

Mr Moi said tourists visiting East Africa might not find interest in passing-by the town bacause Kisumu, Maasai Mara ad Kilimanjaro international airport in Tanzania already serve the purpose.

 “We don’t need an airstrip at this point. We must follow the economic Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs while rolling out projects. Constructing an airstrip while poor people go without basic needs is putting the cart before the horse,” said Mr Moi.

Kwame Owino, the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs, warned that counties and national government should exercise caution and ensure the demand for air transport exists before billions of shillings are spent.

“They have to look at our history. Eldoret Airport, for instance; it was projected that within 10 years of construction, it would process half of the transactions done at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but that is yet to be achieved,” said Mr Owino. He said it was never a guarantee that economic development automatically followed infrastructural development.

Benson Kiriga, the head of macro-economic division at Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), said whereas counties were allowed to construct airstrips, there was a need to avoid concentrating such facilities in one area.

For a county to implement airstrip projects, he said, they should be captured in the County Intergrated Development Plan. “Priority should be followed in implementation of projects in line with Vision 2030. Furthermore, their viability should have been factored in or counties can use existing facilities in the neighbouring counties,” said Mr Kiriga.

Mr Moi said it does not make economic sense that each county is rushing to construct their own airport despite being neighbours, they would rather come together and finance one mega facility as a region. There are about 20 civil airstrips in Western Kenya. Most are idle, while the upgrade of others are in the pipeline, just like Kerenga.

When he was Transport principal secretary Irungu Nyakera told MPs that the multi-billion shilling investments in Kisumu and Eldoret airports were not making economic sense because they were under-used.

Mr Nyakera said Kisumu only attracted eight flight landings a day and a similar number of take-offs, which he said was way below its capacity.

“The utilisation of these facilities is way below capacity. When you consider that only eight flights land in a day at the Kisumu Airport, yet Sh3 billion was spent on the facility, then you realise the benefits of the government investment are not being realised,” the PS told the Transport committee of Parliament.

According to Mr Moi, Nakuru would be more viable for an airport because other than its high attraction to tourists, it can also be an option to land chartered planes and those diverted from Nairobi.

Often planes are diverted to Mombasa’s Moi International Airport, which is far off the capital city.