Mtwapa town in Kilifi County is emerging as an industrial hub at the Coast. The once-predominant, earsplitting music blasting from nightclubs that dotted the tourist town, nested 17 kilometres northeast of the coastal city of Mombasa, has faded.
In its place are deafening thuds of earth movers tearing down old buildings or levelling sites for factories, warehouses, modern shopping malls, or residential flats.
The town’s face is changing fast; and so is its culture. Mtwapa appears to be shedding off the tag of a ‘sin city’ to regain its innocence.
Besides immorality that came with nightclub tourism, Mtwapa also gained notoriety as a hotspot of land-related insecurity.
For several years, the native Giriama and Chonyi sub-tribes opposed the entry of ‘outsiders’ into the area they regarded as their citadel.
Mzee Joseph Kenga says Mtwapa is a Kiswahili admixture of the words ‘mtu wa hapa” translated to mean “one who hails from here”.
“The natives viewed outsiders suspiciously. Whenever they saw a new face, they would ask, ‘ni mtu wa hapa?’ (Is he a local?),” says Kenga.
It is not clear when the Mijikenda arrived in the area, but recent archaeological discoveries reveal that Mtwapa was one of the oldest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, dating back to 1732 BC.
Mzee Kenga says Mtwapa later opened its doors to European retirees and tourists from countries such as Germany, Holland and Great Britain, who fell in love with the area and decided to stay. But this also sparked cases of early child marriage, teen pregnancies, and drug abuse that bred insecurity.
Kilifi Deputy Governor Flora Chibule says the town is now shedding off its past image and is ready for economic takeoff as several factories continue to set base in the area. Locals who jealously guarded their land from outsiders are now ready to sell it to the highest bidder.
“Mtwapa was famous for its nightlife and the vices that came with it. It has now emerged as the preferred destination for investors,” says Ms. Chibule.
Mohamed Rashid, the Vice Chairman of Milly Group and member of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), says Mtwapa is now the preferred place to invest due to availability of land and labour.
“Although it is near the airport and the port, Mombasa has no land and that is why most investors have found Mtwapa to be an ideal place to invest,” says Rashid.
Milly Group set up Milly Fruit Processors, a factory that produces soft drinks like Picana, in Mtwapa in the 1980s.
“We are also setting up Mtwapa Business Park that will consist of 42 warehouses on a 10-acre land in Mtwapa,” says Rashid.
Small-scale traders like James Kihara who moved from Mombasa to set up an electronics shop in the town say Mtwapa’s growth is partly because of Mombasa’s heavy taxation.
“Most small-scale traders you see here moved from Mombasa because of the levies. Kilifi County levies on business are almost half of what is levied in Mombasa,” said Kihara.
Rashid said most of the firms that have set up bases in Mtwapa are targeting the export market. “Mtwapa is near the Port of Mombasa and Moi International Airport making it easy for those targeting the export market,” he said.