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Narok’s chequered growth

REAL ESTATE
By - | May 9th 2013

Rated the best town to do business in Kenya barely three years ago, this town located on the floor of the Rift Valley, would be anybody’s dream place to work and live in. However, Narok is riddled with challenges that are threatening to choke its growth. But there is hope, writes THORN MULLI

“You picked a bad time to visit our county,” Edith Cherop, a hardware business owner based in Narok town, told the Home and Away team that toured the town recently.

Cherop went on to explain that it is a low tourism season and that the ongoing heavy rains had ensured the Masai Mara Reserve, the county’s pride and joy, remains largely inaccessible even for the trickle of game lovers keen on getting a taste of one of new seven wonders of the world.

“That is not the end of our woes,” bemoans Cherop, whose name ironically means ‘born in the rain’ in Kipsigis. “The rains have been more of a curse than blessing to us this season.”

Located south of the Rift Valley and to the north of Tanzania bordering Nakuru to the north; Bomet, Nyamira and Kisii to the northwest, Kajiado to the East, and Migori to the West, Narok is a dusty and seemingly sleepy town dotted with innumerable hardy Olooloshua trees.

Barley

Narok County heavily depends on tourism and agriculture, thanks to the award-winning Mara and abundant arable land for growing barley and wheat. What is not common knowledge, however, is the financial risks involved for those who engage in the two sectors, especially when weather becomes unpredictable.

Currently, not only is the Mara Reserve experiencing a shortage of visitors, but this season’s harvest, due in August, is in jeopardy as a result of flooding, which has reduced farms to muddy puddles, delaying ploughing and planting.

It did not help that there was reported shortage of fertiliser and seeds at the National Cereals and Produce Board depot, fuelling fears that production of wheat and maize could drop from the average 34 million bags to about 27 million bags, which is way below the current 32 million demanded by the country.

For Narok town’s residents like Cherop whose livelihood depends on the two sectors, times are understandably hard.

Silver lining

Poet John Milton’s 1634 coinage, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, remains true, however, for a county that boasts title of East Africa’s biggest producer of barley and wheat, as well as a major supplier of beef and mutton. The silver lining; a booming real estate industry, whose growth is unprecedented, is interestingly born out of this quandary.

Erick Cheruiyot, a manager at Intrax Estate Managers and Consultants in Narok Town, attributes the unbridled development to high returns on real estate investments triggered by high housing demand in the face of limited supply. This has led to high rent for residential and commercial properties.

Cheruiyot says erratic weather conditions have forced many farmers to look for other income sources in the event their crops fail. Some have found their way into real estate as an alternative income source.

The completion of the Nairobi-Narok Road, in late 2010, has also placed the town as a convenient place to do business and work, thus creating housing demand.

On the other hand, the advent of Masai Mara University three years ago, is regarded by many as the most important development that has changed the face of Narok.

The university brought in many students and staff that the university was unable to house by itself, in turn stretching the town’s housing supply. For real estate developers and players, this development created enormous opportunity to invest and reap from property business. Stephen G Njuguna, the registrar at the university, admits that the institution’s entry marked the turning point for the town.

A ground survey by Home and Away revealed that property value in and around the county headquarters has, over the past few years, appreciated by about 400 per cent. A plot of undeveloped land that cost Sh200,000 in 2009, now costs about Sh1 million. Demand for office space is also higher than the supply.

It is not only large scale-farmers who have reaped the benefits of real estate boom in the town. One of the success stories is that of Samuel Mogeni, a vegetable farmer who bought a few acres of land around the university while it still operated as Narok Teachers College.

Best town

Mogeni, barely in his 30s, used his earnings to expand his farming business, and also managed to erect a sizeable three-bedroom maisonette in less than four months. The town’s ascent was further boosted by a World Bank report, Doing Business in Kenya, which rated it the best town to do business in Kenya ahead of eleven other towns likes Eldoret, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi.

The report, which covered 185 economies worldwide, focused on four areas: Starting a business, dealing with construction permits, registering property and enforcing contracts.

Supported by a thriving agriculture, tourism and now real estate, other businesses have continued to troop in and are flourishing. All major financial institutions and insurance firms have branches in the town as leading supermarket chains led by Citi-Mart, Naivas and lately Tuskys, also tap into the town’s potential.

Institutions of higher learning like the Kenya Institute of Management and Catholic University of Eastern Africa are already operating in the town. It is also understood that Mount Kenya University and Kabarak University might also set up base in the town.

As if to demonstrate how well it is doing, the town presently hosts more than 150 entertainment spots and establishments offering accommodation facilities to cater for residents and itinerants travelling through the town to Western Kenya from Nairobi or vice-versa.

It appears that investors from all over the country are drawn to Narok County, which covers nearly 17,944 square kilometres, with a population nearing one million. Six Maasai clans: Purko, Keekonyokie, Ildamat, Uasin-Gishu, Siiria and Moitanik account for a huge chunk of the population with the Purko being dominant.

Apart from the Maasai, the population of Narok town is also made up of so-called minority groups such as Kikuyu, Kipsigis, Kisii, Luo and Luhya.

What raises eyebrows, however, is how unbridled growth is leaving Narok town to choke under its own weight. High cost of living, pitiable public service delivery and growing insecurity are some of the challenges the new county administration headed by Governor Samuel Kuntai and his deputy Evelyn Aruasa, flanked by Senator Stephen Ole Ntutu, have to tackle if the town and county at large is to maintain a competitive edge.

Below poverty line

Jane Njoki, a secretary, confirms that indeed, Narok is an expensive town to live in. The food they buy comes mostly from Mau and Kisii, making it costly. Twelve per cent of the town’s residents live below the poverty line and decent housing is a mirage.

Rental rates rival those of major towns with a single room unit going for Sh3,000 per month, a one-bedroom unit Sh8,000, a two-bedroom house Sh13,000, while three-bedroom unit goes for Sh18,000 upwards.

To stay afloat, most employees in the town have to engage in side-businesses, says Jane who practises vegetable farming on the outskirts of the town where farms available for yearly-leases abound for Sh3,000 to Sh5,000 per acre.

Legend has it that Maasai elders cunningly picked the town’s current location on a valley with a river cutting through it because of its potential to flood, hoping it would deter colonialists from settling there. While the validity of the lore may be disputed, it is a fact that Narok town has a severe flooding handicap during rainy seasons that has to be resolved.

Fredrick Barare, a banker in the town, points out that being in a valley has a major disadvantage as television and radio frequencies are hardly possible to receive. Satellite television that is costly for those in low-income bracket is the only option. This is nothing, however, compared to the perennial water shortage the town endures.

Water hawking is the norm even for those with access to tap water. To make matters worse, residents have to contend with purchasing bottled water for drinking and cooking, as the water supplied by the local council looks muddy and is rather salty.

As a result, a private water company is making a killing off residents purifying and supplying this basic commodity.

This shortage, coupled with incessant electricity blackouts that disrupt businesses and feeder roads in a sorry state, can make life in the town that holds massive potential frustrating.

But the most worrying challenge is rising insecurity, especially during harvest and election seasons. Criminal gangs terrorise residents under the cover of darkness even as call girls and professional robbers descend on the town during harvest time to reap where they did not sow.

Increased poaching that targets elephants has also led to a proliferation of arms that are eventually turned on man.

Heart of town

The real estate business in Narok has not been spared either, with the major concern being lack of proof of ownership of land, especially around the town. Fredrick explains that at the heart of town and in high-density areas like Majengo where business booms and the majority live, owners do not own title deeds or leases for their properties.

All they have are allotment letters from the Narok Town Council. This has ensured that most property owners remain ineligible for financing by real estate financiers. The result is the rise in informal settlements and reports of double allocation of plots. This has led to increase in corrupt deals.

Optimism is, however, high that the new political dispensation will turn clean the dust to reveal the jewel that Narok County really is.

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