The gap in development between most rural and urban areas is alarmingly wide.
It was even more pronounced before retired President Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime made an effort to connect every village to the national power grid with considerable success.
Kenya increased its electricity access from 32 per cent in 2013 to 75 per cent of households in 2022. But despite those valiant efforts, many village towns remain sleepy.
In some, even basic services such as M-Pesa shops do not exist. Yet it might be hard to notice just how much effort people in these areas make to access these services in the nearest urban areas because they have always done so. The struggle has, therefore, been normalised.
When Naivas Supermarket opened a branch in Nyeri town towards the end of 2014, suddenly, a retail chord that had been struck rather sluggishly seemed to come to life.
Whether it was to ride the escalator, which many seemed to be excited by, or to enjoy the thrill of the expansive retail store, shoppers thronged into the Naivas outlet like never before.
The supermarkets that were once the town’s biggest were soon relegated to the second option for many customers.
The town had been mysteriously avoided by Nakumatt, Tuskys and Uchumi, which were the biggest retailers in Kenya for years. Yet no one realised the dearth of options that being snubbed by those giant retailers had caused.
Looking at Nyeri now, it would be impossible to imagine the town without Naivas Supermarket. If the retailer left, the loss would be mourned. The same is true for smaller rural towns.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
A simple shop in a quiet village could solve people’s long treks to look for goods in faraway shopping centres.
Stocking what may not seem popular in an area may lead to the discovery that people actually needed the goods but lacked access. They would not shout on the streets about it. They would not feel the pain of missing out until such a business came up and they realised just how valuable it is that they can easily access it.
A famous story goes that one of the world’s biggest shoe manufacturers, ahead of coming to Africa, was challenged on the suitability of the market.
Said an opponent: “The continent does not know what shoes are. So how are you going to sell to people who do not wear shoes and who might not find value in shoes?” To which the manufacturer, more upbeat than ever, responded: “These people do not have shoes and so will be in need of them. Demand will be high. We are supplying something which is limited in Africa.”
The company became a huge success when it forayed into the continent, legend has it. In Gitegi village, Nyeri County, Mpesa shops have opened and closed in previous years, in part because owners have, after making a fortune, migrated elsewhere. And yet before the first one opened, no one quite publicly complained about the lack of a shop which is probably the commonest in urban areas.
The first was a complete game-changer. Suddenly, there were queues of people looking to deposit and withdraw, some with huge chunks of money that one would have been forgiven for assuming did not exist in the locality.
“In the era of mobile money transfers, the lack of an M-Pesa shop is a huge problem. We used to walk so many kilometres to send money. But it never seemed odd until one opened nearby, then closed, and a return to the past of walking long distances was truly painful,” says Zipporah Mwangi, a resident.
Ngurunit village, a far-flung settlement in Samburu County, is now for the first time enjoying 3G mobile network, courtesy of Safaricom’s initiative to erect a mast. Visiting the village to savour the transformation since the mast was put up, this writer was in 2020 informed that several of the villagers had, in previous livestock auctions, minted millions of shillings.
As they could not access banks in the neighbourhood, they stashed their cash in houses.
And all the while, some were nearly starved, with food not readily available and markets far away. They would be willing to spend on food, they said, but they could not access markets.
The village sat about 100 kilometres off the Isiolo-Marsabit highway. It could be overlooked as a business opportunity but if a food market opened up in the area, miraculously, it could be an instant success.
A spate of rural-to urban-migrations has robbed the countryside of some of the most potent businesspeople. Granted, urban areas often promise better returns, what with bigger flows of traffic and generally higher pricing of products.
The ferrying of goods to urban shops from manufacturers is also easier, especially because most village towns do not still enjoy tarmacked roads.
Kenya’s urban population for 2021 was 15.7 million, a 4.08 per cent increase from 2020. The urban population for 2020 was 15.1 million, a 4.09 per cent increase from 2019. The figure for 2019 was 14.46 million, a 4.1 per cent increase from 2018, according to Macrotrends.
Yet a lot of wealth remains hidden in the rural areas, with those holding it often forced to make long, daunting travels to urban areas to spend.
Opening an agro-vet shop in an agricultural neighbourhood could, for example, prove a godsend to an entrepreneur and to the farmers involved.
It cuts on farmers’ time spent on obtaining necessary farm equipment and extinguishes transportation costs.
The shopkeeper may even decide to considerably increase the cost of products to cater for their own transportation costs, and farmers could still be willing to part with a higher cost as they enjoy increased convenience.
Even in the unlikeliest of places, a bank, or supermarket, could be the start of the transformation of a truly sleepy village into a vibrant town. In some of these places, pubs thrive, with locals willing to part with their hard-earned cash to have a sip of alcohol every so often. So could many other businesses.
An enterprising businessman several years ago opened a gaming shop in Charity, another wee town in Kieni. Questions may abound on the suitability of the business, with gaming youths expected to be concentrated in urban areas.
But soon business was booming as from nearly every household in the neighbourhood, a young man spared an hour or more each day to play a game of football at the new local gaming shop.
“We used to pay even double so as to play more games. Often, whoever paid highest played; that was how terrific the competition was,” says Joseph Kamunya, a gamer who frequented the shop.
The entrepreneur closed shop one day, abruptly, and clearly not because they were not making profits. In the middle of nowhere, they had introduced an urban game in the rural area and it worked wonders. Many others adopted this idea.
In 2023, venturing into business in the most unorthodox of places could be the opening to great opportunities and thus prosperity. It may lead to a discovery that people truly needed a good, or service and that they survived without it is not an indication they are unwilling to pay for it.