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3 - Town Making at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 January 2023

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Summary

The anticipation of large-scale infrastructural development in northern Kenya sparked collective land investments among residents of Isiolo. Despite its geographical positioning at the centre of the country, Isiolo has long been popularly imagined as a dusty frontier town: the ‘end of the tarmac’ (mwisho wa lami) marking the boundary between Kenya ‘proper’ and its neglected north. Yet in recent years, Isiolo has been reimagined as a future industrial capital. This reimagining has been majorly facilitated by the town’s positioning along the Lamu Port–South Sudan–Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, with Isiolo as the gateway into a ‘new frontier’ for economic growth in northern Kenya (see Map 3.1 and Chome, Chapter 2 this book). Isiolo features as a meeting point for LAPSSET’s highways, while the oil pipeline and railway are expected to pass through the vicinity of the town. The scheme also promises Isiolo a number of additional projects: an international airport, a modern abattoir and a mega-dam to serve one of LAPSSET’s three ‘resort cities’, currently planned for a site 70km outside the town.

Cross (2014) notes that scholars often readily assume that the transformations generated by large-scale capitalist development will be ‘top-down’ and driven by the powerful. His study of the economy of anticipation provoked by plans for special economic zones in India counters this notion, and shows how the anticipatory actions of ordinary people also contribute to reshaping the social and spatial outcomes of these investments. Similarly, while LAPSSET promises to make Isiolo town into an economic hub, it has thus far largely been the actions of ordinary people that have propelled the town’s transformation. With the exception of the airport, the majority of the LAPSSET projects have yet to be completed or remain entirely unmaterialised in Isiolo, as national partners’ commitments waiver, the Kenyan government struggles to secure private investment, and disputes by local governments and communities along the corridor disrupt and delay the project’s ambitious timeline (Browne 2015). Yet, as with residents and political leaders in Lamu County, LAPSSET has set in motion an economy of anticipation in and around Isiolo town as people prepare for a LAPSSET future. Most prominently and strikingly, these future preparations are related to land.

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Land, Investment and Politics
Reconfiguring Eastern Africa's Pastoral Drylands
, pp. 43 - 54
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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