The rise and fall of Rift Valley's timber and railway line towns

A section of Salgaa Trading centre Market in Nakuru on October 11, 2019. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard].

Until the late 1990s Maji Mazuri, Mau Summit, Elburgon and Molo were major economic hubs.

They were known for their wood and tin houses in which ran a vibrant economy supported by the lucrative timber industry and the railway.

History has it that the name Maji Mazuri (good water) was coined by foreign railway workers who came to construct the Nakuru-Eldoret railway line.

It is said that the foreign workers, upon arrival at Maji Mazuri, were startled by the clean waters of the rivers flowing through the area from the greater Mau catchment.

The water was so clear, clean and cold. Around it Maji Mazuri throbbed with life. 

“Living and running business here in those days was prestigious, everyone wanted to live close to this town. Visitors were not only treated to the cool weather, but also to the ideal business conditions,” says Samuel Muritu.

But not anymore. Dead silence and closed shops are what remains of the town today. Not even a single machine of the more than six saw mills that used used to operate here remain open. All the sawmills have rusty padlocks on their gates that barely protect the machines wasting away inside.

Muritu, 69 recalls days when he would board a train to Uganda transporting maize for sale. On each return trip he would come back with clothes and different types of fabric for sale to local tailors.

“Business thrived. Life was good. There was no hunger and in none of the trips I made did I miss to make a good kill,” he recounts.

Logging ban muddied waters

Then the Government banned logging and Maji Mazuri’s waters became muddied.

“Things went south in the late 1990s when the Government closed forests to loggers,” says Muritu.

He estimates that at the time there were more than 2,000 people in the town who depended on the timber industry.

“The people lost their only source of livelihood  and it was no longer feasible to trade. Other local businesses died, the railway line lost out to roads,” says Muritu.

Today Mritu reckons that the town’s economy performs at less than ten per cent of what it used to be in the 1980s.

“The few sawmills that survived after the late 1999 ban have all been shut. Youth who used to work there have no jobs. Farms within the forest where we used to grow crops are no more,” he says.

The situation is worse for the once vibrant Mau Summit town which has been reduced to a village trading centre.

Once a major railway terminus complemented by a lucrative pyrethrum sector, Mau Summit is on its deathbed.

Charles Anali, a village elder, has witnessed the rise Mau Summit from a railway station and a major stop-over for cargo and passenger trains to a stretch of deserted, rusty shops.

The fall of Mau Summit, he says, was human folly.

“People would from far to wait for cargo and passenger trains here. Lodges and hotels had come up, but today we have none. What remained was left in ruins after recurrent clashes. Business has shifted elsewhere,”  he says.

Suffering a similar fate is Elburgon town which had dozens of sawmills that closed down amid the Government’s ban on logging.

Elburgon also had a railway station whose  few structures have since been turned into kiosks.

“Without timber industry Elburgon town is dead. Our youths have been rendered jobless and very little money is in circulation. Drugs and alcohol have become their order of the day. Two banks which had branches here closed,” said former Molo MP, Njenga Mungai who lives a kilometre from the town.

Eleven kilometres away from Elburgon, Molo town is emerging from years of stagnation triggered by a vicious cycle of ethnic clashes that occurred each election year.

According to Molo Business Community chairman, Charles Mariuko, the clashes nearly pushed Molo to the brink.

“Molo town has in the past not known a period of peace exceeding five years. There have been clashes every electioneering year starting from 1992 to 2007, all fueled by political intolerance. Today, all this is a thing of the past,” said Mr Mariuko. 

With sustained peace, the town has in the past two years seen drastic improvement with mid-sized malls coming up. More banks have also set base in the town whose economy is driven by agriculture.

“After collapse of the railway transport and pyrethrum sectors residents diversified to growing different crops. Sustained peace has encouraged investments, we have storey houses mushrooming in every corner,” said Mariuko.

Still what used to be the town’s railway station is now a stretch of bush. Just like in Maji Mazuri, ageing buildings that were formerly offices and staff quarters for Kenya Railways have been converted into rental houses.

More towns are coming up to challenge the dominance of erstwhile booming rural shopping centres.

For example, areas along the Northern Corridor are dotted with new shopping centres driven by the demand for services such as lodgings, filling stations, hotels and parking lots. This has seen the rise of centres such as Total, Salgaa, Barnabas and Kikopey.

Buildings at Total are changing from semi-permanent timber houses to permanent ones as investors take advantage of the major stop over for long distance truck drivers.

The same applies to Salgaa town where more lodges are coming up even as the town struggles to shed off a negative reputation for its vices such as prostitution.

The rise of Kikopey

Then there is Kikopey which started in the 1970s as makeshift structures run by a single family. With time, the irresistible aroma of roast meat pulled in more travellers, transforming the centre into an economic hub.

“Hundreds of impulsive stopovers by travelers to sample the nyama choma have spurred Kikopey’s growth to a small township,” says Joseph Mureithi, a trader.

Its sudden development has seen a sharp rise in land prices for the past decade.

An eighth-acre plot costs between Sh650,000 to Sh700,000 in the current market rates compared to Sh50,000 in the early 1990s.

Further down the road stands Barnabas, which has attracted major hotel chains, supermarkets and filling stations.

The upcoming town is steadily growing into a 24 hour commercial center courtesy of the long distance trucks heading to neighbouring Kenya Pipeline Company depot for loading.

“Its growth has been influenced by proximity to Lake Nakuru National Park, which has seen construction of several tourists hotels, supermarkets and several petrol stations,” said Ben Wanyoro, a trader.

Related Topics