Chuka town is arguably the de facto economic hub of Tharaka Nithi County. This is despite the county’s headquarters being located in Kathwana.
The town that lies on the Eastern slopes of Mt Kenya, is located about 65 kilometres from Meru town and about 40 kilometers from Embu town, along the Meru-Nairobi highway.
In the last decade, the 107-year-old Chuka town has come a long way from operating as a dusty rural town.
Now, the town is tarmacked, has street lights and boasts of high-rise buildings.
The town’s tremendous growth and influx of investors has led to an increase in property rates, which has born real estate agencies.
Florida Kiende started a real estate firm, KIMARTS, in 2018. At the time, she realised the increasing need for land and property as Chuka town’s growth accelerated.
A decade ago, a quarter acre of land in Ndagani where Chuka University is located used to sell at between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000.
Today, you can hardly find land that big. This is because land owners have sub-divided their parcels to drive up profits. Five points of land are now selling at between Sh600,000 and Sh700,000.
“The establishment of Chuka University spurred an urge to invest in real estate. Five years ago, people had no use for an agent because property transactions were carried out between individuals. But as more outsiders came in, and the real estate industry grew, there arose a need for property agencies,” said Ms Kiende.
She noted that rental rates have also increased. “Among the properties I manage are one bedroom apartments which six years ago were being rented out at between Sh3,500 and Sh4,000. Now they are being rented out at Sh7,000. Also getting a business premise in Chuka town is a tall order,” said Kiende.
She explained that the demand for strategically placed premises has resulted in desperate tenants booking rooms when they are at foundation level.
Rent for a 20 by 8 front lane room in Chuka town is around Sh20,000. Prospective tenants have to pay six months’ rent upfront as well as a Sh20,000 deposit.
Aside from that, tenants are often forced to do paintwork, electrical wiring, tiling and sub-divisions at their own cost.
However, the growth of Chuka town centre has remained stunted. Kiende attributes this to a reluctance by aging property owners to sell to investors who have the financial muscle to renovate the time-worn single storey buildings.
Chuka town is now about to merge with Ndagani market which is about two kilometers away. High rise buildings continue sprout rapidly to meet the high housing demand.
According to Kiende the quality of infrastructure has also improved in the last seven years.
Instead of building single rooms, investors are putting up bed-sitters and apartments which fetch more money.
Chuka University Vice Chancellor Erastus Njoka said that the rapid growth of Chuka town is greatly attributed to the institution.
“The university has employed workers who earn more than other people in this area. They are able to pay high rents and often visit supermarkets. At first, people used to say that supermarkets cannot be established in Chuka but right now we have three big retailers,” said Prof Njoka.
He also attributed Chuka’s rapid growth to its central placement between Meru, Embu and Tharaka. As such, it is visited by many people.
The VC attributes the construction of over 200 storey rental buildings in Chuka town to the growth of the University.
“In many countries, wherever a university appears, a town is automatically established. The thinking of indigenous people is impacted positively by interactions with foreigners,” said Njoka.
“The university is the major catalyst of growth and if you close it, you will be left with a very feeble Chuka town. The money which circulates here is a lot because of the many students from all over the country.”
Chuka University has a student population of around 20,000 students. It has 600 permanent employees and over 1,500 casual workers.
Chuka town also boasts of some of the tallest buildings in rural Kenya. Among them is a 17-storey building which is still under construction inside the university.
High-rise buildings in Chuka town have been constructed using British, Japanese and Chinese architectural designs which has added to their aesthetic value.
“No a single building in Chuka looks has the same design with another,” said Njoka.
Fatuma Murungi, who was Chuka mayor between 2003 and 2007, was born and raised in the town. She has seen its transformation since the 1960’s.
“We used to have several Indian merchants who later moved to various parts of the world. Right now we only have one second generation Indian family still living here,” said Ms Murungi.
In the 1990’s, there wasn’t a single wholesale shop in Chuka town. Small traders like Murungi had to travel to Embu or Meru to stock up their shops. Now wholesale shops have sprouted everywhere.
Several banks that have been put up in the town have also contributed to its financial growth. Townsfolk who refer to their town as ‘Nairobi ndogo’ believe it has potential to keep growing.