Kabunde Airstrip in Homa Bay County is proving to be a goldmine in turning around the lakeside county’s economic fortunes.
Tourism, hotel and taxi businesses are looking up since the airstrip located six kilometres from Homa Bay Town received its first commercial flights in January.
The airstrip is a convenience to thousands who have for a long time been worrying about catching flights about 114 kilometres away in Kisumu.
The airstrip that is serving the larger catchment area and supplements services of Suneka Airstrip in the neighbouring Kisii County has also lifted local businesses.
Hoteliers and taxi operators who are key beneficiaries of the facility are optimistic that it’s runway shall be extended to accommodate bigger planes.
Mr Jack Awitty, the general manager of Cold Springs Hotel, which is a newly opened four star class hospitality facility in the town, says that the airstrip is a big boost to hospitality industry in the western Kenya tourism circuit.
‘’Some of our clients use the airstrip to reach our new facility and this has boosted sales for many hotels in this region,’’ said Mr Awitty.
Top hotels in the county seeking to benefit from the refurbishment of the airstrip are Rusinga Island Lodge, Tourist Hotel and Blue Ridge Hotel located at the shores of Lake Victoria.
Most hoteliers are tying their tides to the tourist attraction sites in the county like Ruma National Park, Rusinga Island, Lake Simbi Nyaima and Ondago swamp.
Homa Bay County Business Association chairperson Bob Onimo revealed that the airstrip had boosted investment opportunities in the county.
He pointed the entry of several banking and insurance services offering companies into the town as an indicator of a growing investor confidence of the prospects in the lakeside county.
‘’The airstrip has increased investment opportunities in the town and this explains the banking, hotelier and insurance businesses that are establishing in Homa Bay Town,’’ said Mr Onimo.
During a recent investments conference organised by the Homa Bay County government to root for investors to invest in different sectors of the devolved unit, transport and hospitality industries topped the list of sectors where investors were needed.
Kabunde upgrade that is a project of Kenya Airports Authority and the county government was modernised at a cost of Sh200 million with its runaway extended to 1.2 kilometres.
The facilities at the newly refurbished airstrip include an apron and a runaway 14/32, which in the year 2015 was extended from 790 metres to the present 1.2km to accommodate larger aircraft.
Homa Bay County Executive for Roads, Transport and Infrastructure Eliud Otieno said that the county government has embarked on a continuous upgrading of the airstrip’s runaway, targeting bigger aircraft.
‘’The airstrip is a development that is meant to benefit the western Kenya tourism as a number of tourists have started using it to jet into the county,’’ said Mr Otieno.
Two airlines, Barracuda Airlines and 540 Airlines are currently using the airstrip.
The airstrip has also witnessed an influx of tour operator companies in Homa Bay Town who seeks to tap onto tourists seeking to visit the tourist attraction sites in the region.
Kabunde serves as a benchmark for a number of counties in Western Kenya which are pushing to have their airstrips upgraded so as to turn fortunes around.
There are about 20 civil airstrips in Western Kenya alone, most of which are idle, while the upgrade of others are on the pipeline.
Kakamega airstrip and Suneka in Kisii recently received Sh200 million and Sh500 million respectively from the national government for refurbishment as Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui announced that they will build Nakuru airport in conjunction with the national government.
In Kericho, a total of Sh1 billion will be required to upgrade Kerenga airstrip although Governor Paul Chepkwony is facing opposition from a section of leaders and residents over the project which would be done in partnership with the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) and the Kenya Air Force who will provide strategic support.
In September 2017, Kenya Airports Authority toured Itembe airstrip in Bomet County which is also earmarked for uplift.
Narok alone has three purposely to aid tourist movement, including Masai Mara (Keekorok Airport) and Masai Mara (Mara Serena Airport) and Narok airport.
Then there is Naivasha, Nanyuki, Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Kimwarer, Kisii, Kitale, Lake Baringo, Liboi, Loiyangalani and Lokichogio.
According to data released by Oxford Economics last year, the air transport sector in Kenya contributes $3.2bn or 5.1 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The findings of the report dubbed The Importance of Air Transport to Kenya’, also estimates that a 10 percent improvement of air transport connectivity will lead to a Sh1.5 billion per annum increase in the long run GDP for the country’s economy.
The sector supports a nearly 50,000 jobs in Kenya directly and indirectly and pays Sh3.2 billion in taxes.
The Oxford Economics report recommends that air transport connectivity would increase competition hence lower the travel costs, increase flexibility of labour supply and speed up adoption of new businesses.
Experts, however, have asked for proper assessment of the need for airports.
Western Kenya already has two international airports of Kisumu and Eldoret which operate below capacity.
Mr 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 (passengers and cargo) exists before billions are spent in vain.
“They have to look at our history. For 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.
Mr Benson Kiriga, the head of macro-economic division at Kenya Institute of Public Policy and Research said whereas counties were allowed to construct airstrip, there was need to assess the need to avoid concentration of such facilities in one area.