When the Nairobi-Isiolo-Moyale road was completed three years ago, the government counted it as another development milestone.
To the locals, it signified their unification with the rest of the country.
The 501-kilometre road did the charm of boosting patriotism that for over 50 years since the country got independence had been waning in the area.
So grave was the sense of unbelonging that it was common for someone from northern Kenya to say he was travelling to Kenya when visiting other parts of the country, or inquiring from a visitor, “How is Kenya?”
This indifference with the rest of the country was etched by colonial authorities who did not see any importance in investing in northern Kenya, a script adopted by post-independence governments who neglected the region, thus deepening the feeling.
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But all this has been erased by the tarmacking of the road that joins Kenya’s capital to Ethiopia.
The highway, which is part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor project, was constructed at a cost of Sh42 billion as the nation seeks to expand its road network away from the Mombasa-Uganda corridor that passes through Nairobi and much of the northern Rift Valley.
The project, funded by African Development Bank, was launched by President Mwai Kibaki in November 2012, and its completion has opened new horizons for the area.
Most important, the road has reduced the travelling distance between Nairobi and Moyale to 10 hours. Previously, travel on this route was torturous, with days spent on unforgiving bumpy terrain that would last for three days with stops at Merille and Laisamis.
The transport sector along this road is now booming, with buses plying the route charging Sh3,000 one way.
There is also a visibly increased level of economic activities along the highway.
Shops and residential houses are sprouting, teeming with fresh groceries that would hitherto not have survived the vagaries of road transport.
In addition, the value of land along the highway has spiked with areas closer to towns selling three times the amount before completion of the road in 2017.
Isiolo town has had the double blessing of infrastructure development. Other than the Lapsset highway project, the town is home to the Isiolo International Airport.
The Sh2.7 billion facility handles up to 350,000 passengers from domestic flights. The airport, which sits on a 260-hectare parcel of land, is one of a kind in that it runs across two counties of Isiolo and Meru.
A few months after the airport was opened in 2017, property investors invaded the area.
The once dry, hot and endlessly picturesque landscape that was dominated by acacia trees and grazing livestock has now turned into a gold mine for real estate developers.
In the world of property, speculation drives prices and even before the completion of the airport, price of land near the area had skyrocketed.
“By the end of 2016, there was no land to be bought, and the little you could get the price had tripled,” Isiolo resident Boru Halake told Home & Away.
In one of its quarterly market reports in 2017, investment advisory firm Cytonn earmarked Isiolo as the next real estate development frontier.
“We thus expect to witness an increase in real estate development and tourism in Isiolo County driven by the improved infrastructure,” read the report.
The county, which also boasts of three national game reserves -Bisanadi, Buffalo Springs and Shaba - has pushed investors to develop hotel and lodges along the highway, expecting more visitors to access the area due to the improved road network.
According to Ajowi East Africa Estate Ltd, a property company based in Meru with an investment bias in Isiolo, the area has seen a boost in development with investors leaning more towards the hospitality industry.
“With the Lapsset project, investors have moved quickly to find land near the three game reserves in the county to build safari hotels for tourists visiting the area,” said Ajogi Director Mwenda Murerwa.
“In the town, we have witnessed the growth of hotels that seek to capitalise on travellers using the road to Moyale and Ethiopia.”
A close check has revealed the emergence of several hotels in the region. The most notable one is the expansive El Boran hotel, which was constructed after the completion of the highway, It is two kilometres from Isiolo town on the way to Moyale.
Game enthusiasts have been catered for by many safari lodges that have come up in the reserves, boosted by the accessibility of the highway.
The Acacia Royal Hotel is one of the developments that is targeting nature lovers.
As the highway continues to snake north through the Chalbi desert – the largest one south of the Sahara - the fortunes of Marsabit County have changed for the better.
Marsabit Governor Mohamud Ali, during a meeting with Red Cross Secretary General Asha Mohammed on Monday, said Marsabit Municipality was growing at a terrific rate.
He hinted that investors and donors can no longer secure rental premises for their offices, due to high demand for the limited spaces.
“I would advise you to seek space in the outskirts of Marsabit town since the scramble for a few rooms has seen many investors and donors lack office spaces,” he said.
Ali attributed the scarcity to the improved infrastructure that has contributed to an influx of organisations and investors who are looking for spaces to tap the opportunities in the region.
Before construction of the Isiolo-Moyale highway, a 50 by 100 feet piece of land in Marsabit town would go for Sh200,000. Now it fetches between Sh1 million and Sh1.5 million, which solely depends on the availability of the land.
Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Marsabit Chapter chair Haji Gure told Home & Away that a lot has changed due to the improved infrastructure.
This includes a boom in rental and commercial property, land value appreciation and tourism growth.
“I can attest that land rates in Marsabit County are currently more exorbitant than most parts of Kenya since this highway snaked into the county,” Gure said.
A quick check through the town reveals new rental and business premises that have come up in the last two years with locals leaving livestock-keeping to join the brick and mortar world.
“I used to be a livestock broker at the market, I have now shifted gears to land and property which is more profitable and the demand is high,” said Musa Bonaya, a property agent in Marsabit.
The potential of the tourism industry has never been in doubt but the completion of the highway has revealed how enormous and profitable the sector is to the locals.
For tourism, the diverse cultures of the local communities are driving the number of visitors up.
Investors who seek to capitalise on this have established hotels and lodges in Marsabit town and its environs. The two most notable that have been birthed by the highway are The Sylvia Inn and the Saku Lodges and Guest House.
“There were only two major guest houses in Marsabit town in contrast to the ever-increasing number of hotels which currently stand at 10. Many people are now investing in the tourism sector because unlike before, locals and foreigners can access the region,” Gure said.
Banks have also moved in the area to cash in on the increased trade and cash flow.
From two banks previously, Marsabit has now six banks and many micro-finance institutions that have braved the fear of the county being synonymous with conflicts to also establish branches in Moyale town.
But the area has not fully been exploited in terms of the real estate development and according to experts, poor land ownership in the region is putting investors off.
“Lack of title deeds in the region is hampering the growth real estate. There is also the issue of insecurity that still gnaws at the region,” Murerwa said.