Fifty years after Kenya got her independence, Lamu still neglected

An aerial view of Lamu Town. [File, Standard]

Like most people who left  Lamu in the early 1960’s because there were no employment opportunities, educated people  today still leave as soon as they graduate, depriving Lamu of its trained and educated manpower.

Most Kenyans think of Lamu as the romantic islands of beautiful sunsets, dhows and the culture of a thousand years going back to Chinese explorers. We all read about it in our history classes.

Lamu is a large county that extends all the way to the Somali border; borders Kilifi, and Garissa counties. It has a huge hinterland that is mostly dry and arid. There is very little economic activity to write about.

Its original economic base is shattered. Lamu used to be dependent on fishing, mangrove poles, tourism and agriculture. These are all in dire straits now. Fishing yields are so low that they can barely supply the local hotels. Fishermen have small boats that cannot go far out to sea. When they bring their catch, they have no storage place and no ice to preserve their catch.

Much of it rots while still on the boats. Kiunga, a small town near the Somali border symbolises the pain of the fishing industry there. Kiunga has no electricity, limited water supplies and no ice machines. To make matters worse, the roads to Kiunga have become battle zones between Al Shabaab and KDF. The roads are impassable due to IED’s which still kill many people there.

Kiunga was a major fishing port with good supplies. Mangrove poles which are used for construction for hundreds of years are now banned.

This was a main stay of the economy and mangroves from Lamu have been used to build houses across the entire coast and were at one time exported to Arabia. Many old houses in Dubai were built using Mangroves from Lamu. No more. Thousands have lost their livelihoods.

Cover costs

Agriculture is a disaster. Other than Mpeketoni, which still produces vegetables and fruits, the rest of mainland Lamu is dry with poor luminous soils. Maize yields can barely meet subsistence needs. Simsim sells at eighty shillings a kilo- barely enough to cover costs. Worst of all, there is no water to supply all the villages.

Tourism is still the mainstay of the economy but even this has suffered badly because of terrorism and the constant terror attacks. Many hotels have closed down; many tourist villas are for sale. A sense of despondency clouds this industry.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Lamu has been voted the least corrupt county in Kenya. The Governor seems determined to bring positive change to Lamu.

He is well aware of the challenges and seems prepared to find solutions. His greatest challenge is that Lamu has the lowest budget in the country.

Remain backwards

There are major projects being developed in Lamu. The Lapset corridor, which includes the new port, will bring new opportunities. Berth 1 will be ready by June 2019 – but there are no roads to the port.

If we are not careful we could have a port going to nowhere. Salalah in Oman was a dead port for over ten years.  Then there is the 1050 Megawatt Coal based power plant. This will bring in new industries and create much needed business and employment opportunities.

However, these projects are being challenged by NGO’s funded by Europeans who want to see Lamu unspoilt by development. Many of these have holiday homes in Lamu and for their two weeks’ holidays, prefer to see Lamu remain backwards.

Imagine there is a Princess who had the audacity to write to the President to complain of new telecommunication masts!  Had the same Princess held a dinner party in Europe for the youth of Lamu, she could have easily raised ten million euros to help the youth, set up drug rehabilitation centers and improve educational standards. Instead, they want to see Lamu ‘untouched by development’.

While the infrastructure projects are bringing hope, a social and economic tsunami is coming. Are Lamu’s leaders aware? How will the people of Lamu benefit from these coming opportunities if they are not equipped for them? President Kibaki ordered that 1000 youths from Lamu be trained for Lapset, yet very few youths from Lamu have benefitted from this.

These projects will happen, but the people of Lamu may not be the beneficiaries.  Political and social dynamics will change quickly. Lamu leaders must prepare their people for this future. It’s coming and its coming fast. The sole hope is education.

Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies