BY PASCAL MWANDAMBO
Voi town in Taita- Taveta County is among the fastest growing urban centres in Coast region and a business hub gearing towards a twenty four hour economy.
The rapid growth of the town might be an indicator of the huge economic potential that Voi holds , being located next to the busy Nairobi -Mombasa highway, the Nairobi Kisumu Railway line and the expansive Tsavo National Park.
In fact Voi missed becoming one of the tourism resort cities in Coast region in line with Vision 2030 , the main problem being lack of enough land for expansion and lack of a watertight master plan that could guide this rapid expansion.
However, beyond this seemingly rapid expansion and development lies a challenge that might soon become a nightmare to town planners given that initial blueprints that had been designed to guide the planning of the town have largely been ignored and corruption, political patronage and mediocrity have seen the emergence of runaway infrastructure, buildings and numerous informal settlements whose structures do not conform to any architectural standards.
It’s not uncommon to find triangular plots in the town, not by design but by default, while some structures are built on plots whose shapes are not defined in geometry.
In another case that illustrates the haphazard plans being used to allocate plots in Voi township, one of the private developers was allocated a plot with a power transmission pole complete with a transformer inside it.
According to the managing director of the Taita-Taveta Water and Sewerage Company (Tavevo) Mr Peter Shwaswa, the poor planning of the town has been a big challenge to the water company when it came to the issue of laying pipelines and connecting water to new buildings.
“Some of the town planners who came to Voi in recent years totally ignored the way leaves that had been demarcated for water pipelines and future expansions and allocated plots which ended up over lapping the way leaves. Some of the Part Development plans(PDPs) designed by the then Voi municipal council planners also added to the confusion as they disregarded the sections set aside for water pipes” Shwashwa told
i-mpact news during an interview.
Mr Shwashwa cited an example of the problems they encountered while laying the Sh 137 million Msinga 2 Pipeline funded by the World Bank which was meant to double the water supply to Voi town and its environs.
“The Msinga 1 pipeline was put up in the 1960s and a way leave of 9 meters on both sides of the pipeline clearly demarcated for future expansion. However, when the Msinga 2 pipeline was being put up in 2013 we encountered a lot of problems because people had constructed houses right on top of the new pipeline way leave,” said Mr Shwashwa.
However, he pointed out that eventually the World Bank compensated those who were affected before they moved out to pave way for the ambitious water project which will be commissioned later this year.
He pointed out that even at the moment, the company was getting problems connecting new building to the water mains because of lack of a through way for the pipes.
“Sometimes we are forced to incur extra expenses putting up water pipes along longer routes to new buildings because the shorter and more economical routes have already been blocked by other buildings,” said the Tavevo MD.
In fact the Voi bus Park is one major indicator of how haphazard planning of Voi has lead to congestion and confusion.
The area had initially been earmarked to be a matatu park but is now being used by buses, lorries, boda bodas, taxis and pushcarts. The lower part of the bus park is taken up by kiosks which are constructed right under power lines.
What was to be a bus park was later on taken over by a private developer before it changed hands to become the site of the ACK Cathedral.
The lorry park was later moved to Maungu township after the area earmarked for the same was grabbed while the slaughter house at Kariokor was deemed a health hazard as it was located in a residential area and was subsequently moved to Ndara area where it still faces challenges especially availability of water.
The plot that was initially allocated for a Social Hall has now been turned into an open air market. An alternative site for this social amenity has so far not been identified.
After the plot meant for a public toilet in the Voi CBD was reportedly grabbed by a private developer, the confusion heightened.
As such in 2007 the public health department sued the then Voi Municipal Council to compel the local authority to put up a public toilet at the CBD and also relocate the abattoir at Kariokor to a safer location as it was deemed a public health hazard.
Voi lawyer Duncan Mwanyumba who represented the then Voi Municipal Council in the case filed at the Senior Resident Magistrate Court in Voi said the local authority hastily put up the current public toilet even without bidding for a qualified contractor because the matter had been cited as urgent.
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that initial blueprints that were designed to guide the planning and expansion of Voi town have largely been ignored or overtaken by time and it’s high time the county designs new master plans to put a check on the runaway expansion,” says Mwanyumba.
The case of solid and liquid waste management is another thorn in the flesh. The Voi CBD does not have a proper sewerage plan and it’s not uncommon to find the filth flowing freely in the town.
This is despite the fact that in 2005 the World Bank had undertaken a Sh500 million feasibility study on sewage management in Voi town and its environs through the then Ministry of Local Government(MOLG).
The feasibility study has never been actualized and planners estimate that the cost could have doubled to Sh 1 billion, ten years down the road.
According to a resident of Kaloleni in Voi Mwandawiro wa Mbela lack of planning in the area was a big problem especially lack of access roads as well as sewage and waste water drainage.
“In the event of a fire it would be hard to access most of the houses and buildings in Voi. The same applies to accessibility for sewage removal by the exhausters,” says Mbela.
A couple of years ago, the German Technical Agency (GTZ) embarked on an ambitious project to formalize the informal settlements in Voi, starting with the Tanzania-Bondeni Settlement Scheme as a pilot project. This was to be replicated in other informal settlements like Gaza, Kariokor, Sofia,Mwakingali,Mabomani , Kaloleni,Mazeras and Maweni.
However, this was not to be as GTZ was forced to pull out before completing the Tanzania-Bondeni project in what the organization cited as political interference and rampant corruption in the then Voi Municipal Council.
Despite urban planning challenges, Voi town is rearing to rise as a commercial hub
Voi sub-county is one of the four sub-counties in Taita-Taveta County with a population of over 60,000 inhabitants. Despite its relatively small size Voi town has been growing fast and gearing up to become a vibrant 24 hour economy.
The thriving economic activities especially in the Voi CBD have made the town the commercial hub in the county despite the official county headquarters being in Mwatate sub-county but now temporarily housed in Wundanyi sub-county.
Voi town owes its origin to the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway line during the late 1890s where small businesses largely owned by Indians constructing the railway line began to spring up.
Currently it seems as though history is repeating itself as the construction of the multibillion Standard gauge railway line has begun to expand the economy of Voi and its environs given the vast business opportunities that the project will entice in Voi and the whole Coast region as a whole.
Already land speculators have been rushing to Voi to acquire land as the prices of plots sore to up to Sh 10m per acre.
Some of the key businesses in Voi and its environs include those inclined to tourism and the hospitality industry and the mining sector.
Hotels such as Voi Safari Lodge, Voi Wildlife Lodge, Ngutuni Lodge, Red Elephant and Tsavo Park hotels have been working round the clock to tap in on the vast tourism opportunities that abound in and around Tsavo despite the sharp decline in business occasioned by travel advisories coming in the wake of terrorism fears in the Coast region.
The mining sector has also played a key economic role even though most of the gemstone dealers do not invest directly into the local economy.
However this is set to change dramatically once the gem center being put up in Voi become operational. The gem center will double both as a business hub for minerals and gemstones as well as a resource center where those interested in the gemstone business can learn about the value and nature of minerals.
However the town still face quite a number of challenges in terms of planning. Over 90 per cent of the land is under private hands thereby limiting expansion. Its because of this that Voi missed the opportunity of being accorded the status of a tourism resort city, in line with the Vision 2030 blueprint. Instead Diani in Kwale county was picked for this.
The sprouting up of informal settlements has been a major problem as shanty structures come up side by side with permanent structure. These include Mwakingali, Mabomani, Sofia, Bondeni, Maweni and Kariokor.
This has largely been blamed on lack of watertight masterplan for Voi something that is sourly needed if this fast growing town has to enjoy some semblance of order.
Still talking business, the town got a major boost recently when the county government opened up a new wholesale market near Caltex along the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway. The market will serve to decongest the CBD as well as expanding the town.
Voi town is largely cosmopolitan and attracts investors from all over the country.