Friday, September 7, 2007

LGI News: Crippling poverty in land of poverty

["It has enormous resources yet, ironically, the new Mutomo district in Eastern province is one of the least developed in the country.

Mutomo, which was recently hived off Kitui, is an economic giant sleeping on a gold mine worth billions of shillings.

The arid, wind-swept district of Ukambani continues to lag behind in development although it is endowed with valuable resources, including deposits of minerals such as limestone, coal, magnesite and graphite.

Besides, the sparsely populated area lies in a vast game reserve with great tourism potential, and on key tourism routes.

But all is not lost. Currently, two cement manufacturing companies are separately working on plans to establish multi-billion-shilling plants in the area, which are expected to create thousands of jobs for not only the locals, but other Kenyans as well.

Government neglect

The one-constituency district, also known as Kitui South, is ranked the third poorest electoral area in the country due to what the residents term neglect by the past governments as well as challenges which have hindered development since independence.

Carved out of the larger Kitui early this year, bringing to nine the total number of districts in Ukambani, Mutomo has three administrative divisions — Mutomo, Ikutha and Mutha — with a combined estimated population of only 170,000.

Just to show how undeveloped the area is, among the 38 new districts in the country, it is probably the only one which does not have an inch of tarmac road — or piped water and electricity.

According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, up to 68 per cent of the district’s residents are among Kenya’s absolute poor, with a mean monthly household income of about Sh3,000, due to an erratic climate and drought.

Water scarcity is so severe here that, on average, a 20-litre jerrican costs Sh20 throughout the year, a situation which aggravates the poverty situation. For instance, at Mutomo market, the district headquarters, meals at the restaurants are served without water to wash hands or drink.

The constituency, represented by Mr Mwangu Ivuti, has only a handful of ill-equipped secondary schools, and does not have a single tertiary education institution to raise the despicably low education standards.

Mutomo also lacks roads to connect it to its neighbours — Tana River and Malindi of Coast province.

So where do we go from here? A master development plan, accompanied by huge government and private sector investment, is what is needed to lift the area out of the economic quagmire.

The residents hope that the area, for long considered the backwaters of Kambaland, can develop faster than Kitui and Machakos. And the good news is that priority projects have been identified and given priority as part of a five-year strategic development plan aimed at spurring growth, based on the tourism and livestock keeping potential.

They hope that the Government will, among other things, honour its election campaign pledge of tarmacking the 200km Kitui-Kibwezi road which runs through the district. The particularly poor section, the only long Class B road, has a great trade potential because it connects the port of Mombasa to the upper Eastern province districts and the Mt Kenya region as well as Ethiopia.

According to the local leaders’ master plan, the Government has been asked to, among other things, degrade the Tsavo East national park to a game reserve and approve the creation of a county council so that the area may be independent of the Kitui council.

Councillor Kamau Mutuvi of the Ikutha/Kasaala ward says the request for an independent council, made two months ago by a delegation of civic and religious leaders, is awaiting the approval of Local Government minister Musikari Kombo.

The downgrading of Tsavo East which, together with the South Kitui game reserve, form almost two-thirds of the new district, means that part of the revenue generated will be administered within the proposed local authority to fight poverty.

The local political leaders say the new district is a major boost in virtually all development aspects, arguing that it provides a strategic launch pad to harness the available resources and to create wealth for the local residents.

“Despite our new district being entirely dry and arid with more cross-cutting economic challenges, it has great economic potential in terms of natural resources,” the leaders said.

If the area is granted a council, the Kitui one will be forced to go back to the drawing board and come up another strategic plan that does not factor in anything from the new district.

The creation of the district early this year came at a time when the council had, in line with the ministry policy guidelines, finalised crafting a five-year plan, which heavily factored in millions of shillings in revenue from Kitui South.

One of the revenue sources is the South Kitui game reserve, a vast wildlife sanctuary that covers almost a third of the new district, with great tourism potential, what with the animals, breathtaking scenery and beautiful sites.

The council last month concluded three-year-long negotiations with the Kenya Wildlife Service over the management of the reserve, which saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two parties. Already, there are subdued murmurs over the anticipated council split.

Of great concern to some leaders is that the move will put the remaining Kitui county council at a disadvantage by placing key revenue resources outside its jurisdiction.

And with the Government formulating a new tourism policy geared towards empowering communities living around such resources, the fear is that Mutomo will benefit more."]

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