Kisii serves up more than just ‘matoke’ in rise as financial hub

A view of the Banana factory at Kisii Farmers Agricultural Training Cente. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Kisii County has in the recent past undergone a major economic transformation, boosting businesses and attracting new ventures.

The growth is seen in, among other developments, new food processing industries as the county moves to cash in on increased agricultural production.

Farmers are banking on the completion of a new banana processing plant and another one for avocados to end their woes of perennial losses due to the lack of a ready market for the two crops.

Agriculture Executive Esman Onsarigo said the two plants at the Kisii Agricultural College (ATC) could set off an industrial revolution and spur improved economic growth for the agriculture-rich county.

"For decades, a good share of their produce has been going to waste for lack of market and the major challenge of dealing with middlemen fleecing farmers,” said Mr Onsarigo.

Some farmers who have ventured into growing bananas and avocados on a large scale anticipate big returns.

Completion of the two processing plants is a major win for locals following the closure of Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Kisii town three years ago, rendering thousands of people who relied on the factory directly and indirectly jobless.

The latest development comes at a time when the once vibrant agricultural hub has attained municipality status, incorporating other fast-growing towns adjacent to Kisii town.

A 20-year (2022-2042) economic blueprint launched a month ago is expected to factor in the expansion of the town’s boundaries.

The current municipality has a radius of 25 kilometres, but the new plan shows the town is to expand to a radius of 77 kilometres.

"Kisii has been facing congestion, uncontrolled development, and floods due to lack of proper land-use plan. The new plan will open the way for new economic frontiers and investments,” said Municipal Board Chairman Jamil Shamji.

The region is also becoming a major economic hub, leading to the opening of a clearing house of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) in Kisii town in October 2020.

The County Finance Chief Officer Wilfred Auma said Kisii has experienced a major economic transformation in recent years.

“This transformation can be attributed to the millions of shillings invested by the diaspora community around the world,” said Ms Auma.

A farmer inspects her bananas at her Kionganyo farm in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

In the last few years, the Kisii community in the diaspora has invested in hotels, residential and commercial properties and hospitals, making the region one of the fastest-growing counties in the country.

According to the US–Kenya Prosper Counties Report titled Enhancing Business-to-Business Ties, Kisii's growing prominence as an economic hub in the country has been boosted by, among other factors, its close proximity to Kisumu Airport and a growing population.

With large wholesale trading businesses struggling in the current harsh economic environment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, smaller enterprises are stepping in to fill the void. 

The importance of Kisii town is underpinned in the fact that its population almost doubled after the 2007/08 post-election violence, creating an unprecedented market potential for existing and new businesses.

John Billy, a former manager with KCB Bank, explained that there are now more business opportunities in the region.

"The huge money transactions in the town is a clear indication that private businesses are motivated. There are so many young people who have been offered loans and still able to repay within the set time frame,” he said.

The region's growth has spurred the rapid expansion of the banking, hospitality and education sectors.

There are nearly 15 major hotels that have opened their doors to the public in the last five years, increasing the region's hotel accommodation capacity to 7,000, up from 1,500 in 2009.

The private health sector in the town has also been on an upward trajectory, rising to more than 15 major private hospitals from four facilities in less than six years.  

The elevation of Kisii Hospital to a teaching and referral hospital with state-of-the-art facilities has also been a major boost for the region.