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Moving more people to towns will improve services

OPINION
By Mohammed Guleid | October 27th 2021
Nairobi Expressway construction on aerial view. [David Gichuru, Standard]

While flying over the Mt Kenya region towards northern Kenya, something caught my eye. People live in isolated villages. Kenya’s population density is around 100 people per square kilometer. For comparative purposes, the Netherlands has a population density of 500 people per square kilometer.

Comparatively the Netherlands is about the size of Garissa County. Of significance for the difference between Kenya and the Dutch nation is more in where the people live. Close to two-thirds of the population of Holland are within the conurbation of the Randstad, the area between the four main cities. The region is barely the size of Kiambu County but has a population of nine million people and a density of 1,500 people per square kilometer. The concentration of people within a small area makes it easy for government to provide services.

In the 1970s and 80s, the government actively discouraged rural to urban migration. The cities attracted school leavers and fresh graduates because it was easy to find jobs and other opportunities there. African governments, Kenya included, should encourage people to move to the cities. It is easier to provide services when people are concentrated in a small space rather than expansive areas.  

Rural poverty is perpetuated by distance to main centers where jobs are available. Most poor rural folks are not able to travel to cities easily to sell their merchandise and come back home in the evening due to poor road infrastructure. The only people who have this luxury in Kenya are residents of Kiambu, Murang'a, and Machakos who have easy access to Nairobi and can commute from home depending on the availability of public transport.

In this column, I have a radical suggestion. I propose that the government should come up with a master plan aimed at relocating close to half of Kenya’s population to the vicinity of Nairobi. The metropolitan area can be designed to hold more than 25 million people.

This will require a massive investment in infrastructure, housing, water, and social services such as schools and health facilities. In the long run, this investment is more worthwhile than spreading public lands over a large area but with a minimum return. For the population in the arid regions, people need to be encouraged to relocate to the main towns. This shall make the costs of putting up schools, hospitals and provision of other services more affordable. 

The reason our economies are not developing is that we are engaged in subsistence livelihood that keeps us in poverty. Most developed countries have invested in infrastructure, housing, and service provision in urban centers more than concentrating in rural settings. Even China is slowly wriggling out of the image of being a third world country. Today, it has concentrated the majority of its people in main towns.

In Indonesia, the capital Jakarta has more than 40 million people. This is almost the size of Kenya’s population. In Kenya, we have been reduced to staying in our tribal cocoons to keep us isolated. The concentration of people in major towns shall in the long run have economic benefits and help plan development more easily. Our development should be based on a 100-year plan.

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