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Spectacular collapse of Nakuru's once-budding top industries

An aeral view of Nakuru town. [File, Standard]

When white settlers began their operations in Kenya, they set up key establishments that played a pivotal role in transforming the economy.

Today, some of the companies, with their bases in Nakuru, are a pale shadow of themselves. They either have a skeleton staff or have shut down.

The organisations include Kenya Farmers Association (established in 1925), Pyrethrum Board of Kenya (1938), Unga Ltd (1928) and Kenya Co-operative Creameries Ltd (1925).

Other firms which have fallen from grace to grass are Eveready East Africa Limited, which shut down in 2014 and Elliots Bakeries.

Flamingo Bottlers which manufactured Coca-Cola products, shut its production line in mid-2000s, while neighbouring Tosti Bakeries scaled down its operations to remain in business.

A number of textile firms, including Londra Limited, Mega Spin, African Synthetic, Nakuru Fibres, Afro Spin, Lamson Industries, and Yako Textile Industries, are among those that shut down.

A tobacco manufacturing firm, Master Mind, and an edible oil processing firm, Nakuru Oil Mills, also joined in the long queue of industries whose lives were cut short by hostile trading environments.

Government records obtained by The Standard indicate that there were 300 industrial firms in Nakuru between 1970 and 1980- with the number increasing to 420 by mid-1990s. It is also in the mid 1990s when most of the firms started folding up.

The defunct Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, now renamed Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya Limited, had employed over 2,200 workers, while Londra Textile firm had 1,200 employees by the time it was wound up. 

KFA, which has now downscaled its operation, had 1,000 employees.

Some of the firms in the agro-based industrial sector were dealing in the processing of food, animal feeds, beverages, fiber and textile, wood, and wood products.

The factories in the chemical and mineral sectors: were dealing in paints and varnishes, basic industrial chemical plastic and rubber, lime ceramics, soap and cosmetics, and refining of some petroleum products.

There are also several industries in the engineering and construction sector that collapsed, which were dealing with the manufacture of iron and steel products, the manufacture of transport equipment, foundry, and assembling of motor vehicle bodies.

The collapse of the industries put a sharp focus on the Kenya Kwanza government’s stated agenda of establishing a new industrial park in Naivasha and an agro-processing park in the Njoro.

Business experts and owners of the collapsed business ventures contend that the government needs to have come up with a blueprint that fully addresses the challenges that have in the past 30 years, led to the steady collapse of industries, some of which were established between 70 and 100 years ago.

A labour movement official, Cleopas Isiaho, estimates that over 100 large and medium-sized industrial ventures have closed shop in Nakuru’s Industrial Area and other areas within the town over the past 30 years.

Several factors including, shortage of raw material, influx of cheap imports into the local market, high cost of electricity and other production costs, and punitive tax regime have been cited as some of the factors that led to the collapse of the industries.

Some business ventures such as the KCC, the Pyrethrum Board, the Milling Corporation, and  FA, where the government had a hand in influencing decisions, went into loss-making due to mismanagement and corruption.

Isiaho said the collapse of the firms had led to loss of over 50,000 direct jobs within the town, hence affecting the region’s economy.

Kenya Farmers Association building in Nakuru on February 26, 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Isiaho, a consultant on labour issues, said the collapsed industries cut across and the factors that led to the collapse need to be addressed.

He said Kabazi Canners, which provided a market for tomato and peas farmers from the Kabazi and Subukia, had closed down, while Njoro Canners had scaled down production.

“The government needs to provide a tangible solution and road map for the revitalisation of the industrial sector. You cannot establish an industrial park or an agro-processing park when already existing firms are collapsing,” Isiaho added.

“We also have other textile firms as Robins, Lamson and Nakuru Fibres, which have closed down. How does the government commit to reviving cotton growing while textile firms have closed down? What incentives is the government offering those intending to set up factories in the newly created industrial hubs?” Isiaho posed.

Most of the giant firms stood tall in their heyday, with imposing buildings to boot.

Today, a walk to Industrial Area reveals a desolate place with most buildings, previously operating as factories and warehouses, empty.

This is the sorry state of affairs in Nakuru, where many industries have shut down over the past three decades.

A human capital and business consultant, Dr Stanley Karanja, said the government needs to have a well-developed and thought-out plan to address the critical issues that have negatively impacted on business and industrial enterprises in Kenya before rushing to set aside land for industrial hubs.

“We are in a worrying situation. The Kenya Industrial Estate in Nakuru town is in a pathetic situation as the sheds, which were previously meant for light processing industries have been turned into motor vehicle garages, and yards for the sale of second-hand motor spares, or outlets for the sale of animal feeds,” Dr Karanja said.

The consultant, who previously worked as a marketing manager with Coca-Cola Company and contested for governor in the county, said it would be impossible to attract major investments in the newly created industrial parks when factors that led to the collapse of previous industries remain unaddressed.

“It is simple logic, businesses and industries cannot be collapsing, and then you think of establishing new ventures before first addressing the factors that led the initial businesses, some of which were established 100 years ago, to fail,” Dr Karanja said.

He said the collapse of industries had led to massive unemployment in Nakuru town.

“Hundreds of university and college graduates who are well trained in finance, human resource management, electrical and electronics engineering, food production, chemical engineering, and dairy production, among other fields, are now hawkers while others operate boda boda or matatus or do menial jobs,” Karanja said.

Karanja added that the collapse of industries had denied workers quality jobs and the opportunity to earn good and regular incomes.

“If a proper study is conducted, it will reveal that the life span of these graduates doing menial jobs has reduced,” Karanja said.

A former chief for the Lanet location, Stephen Lelei, said the collapse of industries had led to unemployment and affected family stability.

Mr Lelei worked with Nakuru Blankets, which has scaled down its workforce from 3,000 to 300.

The former administrator said he was employed at Nakuru Blankets in 1982 as a general worker before rising through the ranks to a weaver, production clerk, wages officer, to factory welfare officer.

He recalled that at the peak of production in the late 1980s, the textile production firm had 3,000 workers whom he was supervising and operated three shifts a day.

Lelei said the textile firm led to the growth of the neighbouring Free Area trading centre and Kiratina estate.

He said the liberation of the economy in mid-1992 impacted negatively on the operations of most industrial firms due to the influx of cheap textile products.

Lelei later resigned from the textile firm in 1993 when he was appointed chief, a position he held until his retirement in 2017.

Community leader Eliasif Magoma, former employee of Eveready East Africa, said the firm had 1,200 employees until the mid-1990s when it started experiencing problems due to changes in technology.

“The influx of cheap dry batteries from China and other Asian countries affected the production of Eveready Limited while the demand for dry batteries also significantly reduced as the government intensified rural electrification programmes and other Kenyans installed solar panels,” he said.

Magoma said several other industrial establishments, such as Nakuru Oil Mills, which was manufacturing edible oil from sunflower and popcorn had to cease operation following the influx into the market of cheap cooking oil. “The liberalisation of the economy was done haphazardly as the government failed to take some safety measures to safeguard our industries,” Magoma added.

He said Industrial Area was in the 1980s and mid-1990s a hive of activity as most industries operated 24 hours.

The building used to house Sam-Con Limited company, a vehicle body fabrication manufacturing company in Industrial Area, of Nakuru town.  [File, Standard]

“The youth are now venturing into informal sectors where incomes are low. This has led to the growth of slums as people cannot afford decent houses,” Magoma said.

The civil rights activist further said that many houses in Kaptembwo and London, which neighbour Industrial Area were vacant as people had relocated to rural areas.

A former employee of the Ministry of Public Workers, Richard Masika, said he was well conversant with Industrial Area as he used to inspect construction work in the area.

Masika, now a Kanu official said: “Industrial Area is a ghost place, previously the area was teeming with workers at any given time as industries operated 24 hours.”

He said the economy of Nakuru City had declined.

“Previously, Nakuru had many entertainment joints that operated throughout the night, but nowadays the town is dead asleep by 9pm. We have few bars and restaurants operating throughout the night. This has also impacted negatively on taxi business and petrol stations, among other businesses,” Masika recalled.

The Kanu official said over the past few years, only Simba Cement and Royal Tanks have set up major industrial operations in the region. 

He said several small firms making roofing materials had set up their operations on the outskirts of the town.

A former worker in the sisal industry, Joel Nyandieka, said the collapse of sisal farming in Mogotio had also led to the collapse of industries involved with weaving and spinning.

Nyandieka served as a shop steward for the Kenya Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (KAPWU). He worked with Majani Mingi Group of Companies.

Majani Mingi Group owned several sisal firms, which included Athinai, Majani Mingi, Lomolo, and Mogotio sisal farms that employed over 10,000 workers by the mid-1990s. The sisal firms closed shop.

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