A truck ferrying household furniture snakes its way up the road to Landless Estate, off Garissa Road in Thika. A couple of residents conversing on the roadside do not even look up, the scene perhaps too familiar as the fast-developing suburb continues to draw more and more people from near and far. In the truck is Kevin Aluga, who is moving houses to Thika from Ongata Rongai, a suburb on the other end of Nairobi.
“The city has grown increasingly inhabitable,” says Aluga. “The cost of living in the city has spiralled out of the reach of the average worker over the past few years.”
Aluga is an accountant with a Westlands-based international firm and he attends evening classes at Mt Kenya University (MKU), which has campuses around the country. He has now organised with his employers to be reporting for work earlier and leaving before the traffic builds up in Nairobi to be at MKU Thika campus by 7pm.
“It is much easier to plan my time while in Thika than in Nairobi as movement is much more predictable,” he says, but his choice of Thika as a residence has other motivations as well. The rent for his two-bedroom house in Rongai was adjusted three times in three years from Sh7,500 to Sh15,000, the landlord all the time citing market rates. Security is also a major concern in most parts of Nairobi and public utilities like water and electricity have been intermittent at best.
“When you add that to the fact that I had to sit in traffic, sometimes for three hours, to make what should be a 25-minute drive, you see why I moved.”
Daniel Ojijo, chairman of the Mentor Group that owns such leading real estate brands like Villa Care and Homes Kenya, says Nairobi is paying the price for its unsustainable growth that has seen the availability and quality of housing seriously stretched. This has pushed prices for homes through the roof and pushed people to suburban towns.
“When you look at the scenario closely you see a combination of challenges for the city dweller,” says Ojijo, pointing at deteriorating public services and poor planning as other reasons why Nairobi has suddenly become very unattractive.
“Estates like South C and Buru Buru have been very badly planned and the term ‘concrete jungle’ is what comes to mind when you think of them. But when you look at the upcoming developments in the outskirts of the city, say, Jacaranda Estate, you realise the developer has factored in open spaces and greenery in the plan, making them very habitable.”
It all comes down to price, Ojijo adds, pointing to the high land prices in Nairobi as the reason every developer wants to maximise the use of space.
And staying on money, a house in the city commands a much higher purchase or rental value compared to other emerging areas.
“It would cost you up to three times more to live in Kileleshwa than it would in Athi River. The class and the services cannot compare, but economic realities have forced people to downgrade their preferences.”
And, adds Ojijo, there is also the issue of modernity, which these satellite towns have as opposed to the ageing Nairobi. By ‘modernity’ he is speaking of the appealing architectural approaches that have seen investors develop all-inclusive communities that offer shopping centres, clinics and schools in one centralised settlement, developments that would be difficult in Nairobi owing to the cost of land.
“A gated community is a promise of a new experience. There are new people to meet, new cultures to experience and the distinction of living with people who share your station in life.”
Aluga, on the other hand, brings forth a new reason why moving north of the city to the famed industrial town is such a timely decision for most people: the new superhighway. Expected to be commissioned by March 2012, the road will ease traffic flow between Nairobi and other outlying areas in the general direction of Thika.
“It is not even complete yet and driving on this road is already an everyday marvel,” he says, adding that, as a motoring enthusiast, he would rather drive a longer distance and do it in 30 minutes than be sitting in traffic for two hours to cover the 10 kilometres or so to Rongai from the Nairobi.
“Thika could be physically further away than Rongai, but with this road, it has become much closer, with the 50 or so kilometres from Thika to Muthaiga now just a 25-minute cruise within the speed limit. Once they finish with the Muthaiga-to-Moi Avenue interconnection, driving to the city centre from Thika will become far much easier.”
The exodus to Thika has, however, not been all rosy, with the town now home its own traffic jams during peak hours. It is also an unenviable task trying to get parking space on a weekday in Thika town, but Sophie Ngina, a businesswoman, will not be complaining about any of that.
“I would consider these new difficulties as teething pains, every progressive town has to deal with such problems,” she says. “Thika has largely been welcoming people with a serious purchasing power who are big consumers of local products and services, leading to a marked growth of the Thika economy.”
Ngina points at the invasion by banks, insurance companies, supermarkets and other big businesses as the best pointer you will get that immigration is a good thing.
Prof Joseph Kieya, head of the Public Sector Development at the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), a socio-economic think tank, believes such movement of people is laudable from the economic perspective, but worries over its impact on agriculture.
Prof Kieya sees towns as far flung as Kenol in Murang’a County in the North, Machakos in the East, Kajiado in the South and Kiambu and Limuru to the West as some of the major winners from a decline of the attractiveness of Nairobi as both a business and residential base.
“Nairobi has since independence been on a rapid expansion of a largely unsustainable nature,” he says. One result of that has been a difficult traffic situation in Nairobi that has seen the city ranked one of the most difficult cities to drive in by an IBM Survey. That has come at a big cost to the economy, says Prof Kieya.
“These traffic jams cost our economy billions of shillings every year as people who should otherwise be involved in progressive economic activity are unnecessarily held up. It’s the same with goods and services that cannot reach their markets in good time. Decentralising some of Nairobi’s activities to other towns can relieve pressure on the city as people access services away from the city centre.”
The Achilles Heel of this expansion has been the conversion of rich agricultural land to residential areas, a development that is hardly sustainable, according to economists.
“Clearing coffee farms in Kiambu and Thika counties to develop real estate projects is a major mistake, especially when you consider that areas around Mlolongo and Kajiado have little agricultural worth. We should be careful as policy makers not to encourage settlement in such areas.”
Gerishon Ikiara, a leading economist and a former permanent secretary, concurs, arguing that Nairobi losing out to other regions is not a bad thing.
“A decade or so ago, Nairobi commanded about 70 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product. That has now dropped substantially, and that is a positive sign that economic decentralisation programmes of the last eight years or so have been successful.”
Ikiara also expects the counties envisaged in the new constitution to further aid the development of areas outside of Nairobi. The city will have to rediscover itself in a new identity as, presently, most people would wish to leave if they could help it, adds Ikiara.
Moving the government from Nairobi to a different town could be a good idea, adds Ikiara, although present economic realities will stand in the way of Kenya following Nigeria and Brazil in shifting the seat of government to deal with congestion.
As for people moving out of Nairobi, Ikiara says that is a good example of a progressive society that is able to make big choices.
“Let our people go to Naivasha, to Machakos and to Thika. Let them settle there and help improve the local economies. It’s a very positive development,” he sums it up.