At the time of its official opening in July 2017 after a Sh2.7 billion upgrade, Isiolo Airport was billed as a game-changer for the economies of northern Kenya, including Isiolo, Meru, Marsabit and Laikipia counties.
Flights loaded with miraa and horticultural produce from Meru and Laikipia would operate from the airport, besides local and international passengers landing at the facility, boosting tourism.
But two years down the line, the airport is idle, only used occasionally by small chartered aircraft. A visit to the airport paints a gloomy picture of a facility where billions of shillings were invested, yet it is not utilised. A couple of workers walk around lazily, whiling away time.
There are several check-in counters, with a worker saying a local aircraft charter company operated some flights last year before discontinued them due to lack of passengers. The facility was also supposed to be used by miraa traders transporting the stimulant to Nairobi and other destinations.
However, the airport has not attracted operations of scheduled passenger or cargo flights because there is no control tower, no landing lights and the runway is too short – 1.4km. While there have been talk of extending the runway, it is not clear why such a facility was built with a short runway that only allows landing of small aircraft, and why the other necessary infrastructure is not in place.
The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) has ruled out deployment of traffic controllers with Director-General Gilbert Kibe confirming that the authority does not have officers at the facility since the level of business cannot sustain operations.
“Until such a time there are flights operating at the airport, we cannot deploy traffic controllers,” he told Shipping & Logistics via telephone.
According to Nyambene Miraa Traders Association (Nyamita) chairman Kimathi Munjuri, there is a provision for loading of khat at the airport, but proper consultations on how they would transport the produce from the facility were not done.
He said had they been consulted on how to actualise the plan, the authorities would have made informed decisions on how to facilitate them. For instance, the cost of transporting miraa from Isiolo to Nairobi by flight averages $2,000 (Sh200,000) for a load of 1.5 tonnes, which a pickup carries at a cost of Sh50,000.
“This cost is too high and there is no way farmers can agree to have their produce transported by air. There is need to think about incentives that will convince miraa traders to use the airport. But if the runway would be extended, then we would have flights leaving Isiolo for Somalia, the major destination for miraa at the moment,” Mr Munjuri said.
The transport of miraa from Isiolo was also intended to eliminate road transport where there is rush to deliver the produce to Nairobi.
But with the banning of the stimulant in Europe, this left only Somalia as the export market. However, farmers say there is potential of other markets such as Yemen, Quatar and Kuwait, which can boost business at the airport if it would be operational. A vision 2030 flagship project where a resort city will be built as one of the Sh2.5 trillion Lamu Port South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor projects, the airport was also expected to boost tourism in the upper eastern circuit.
Jonson Kirimi, a tour operator based in Meru, said if the airport was in operation, arranging tour packages to Samburu Shaba and Meru national parks would be cheaper and more convenient.
“We at times pick a few guests from Nairobi and take them to the parks which is very expensive since they have to hire a whole van. If they would take a flight then we pick them in Isiolo it would be time saving, less costly and safer for the guest,' he said.
Meru county Governor Kiraitu Murungi and his Isiolo counterpart Mohamed Kuti have been pushing for the KAA to complete the upgrade, saying the airport would boost the area’s economy.
“The airport was expected to transform this region, the reason we even pushed for tarmacking of the Isiolo-Ruiri road so that we can have a direct link between the facility and miraa-growing areas. We will continue to lobby for the upgrade because we know it has a huge potential,” said Mr Murungi in an interview.
During a tour at the facility by the Lamu Port and Southern Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor Development Authority (LCDA) board members and Isiolo County leaders, it was revealed that the airport lacks sufficient aviation lights to allow planes to land or take off at night.