Turkana: The poorest part of Kenya for a long weekend

samfloy~5 May 2018 /East Africa/East Africa Travel

So last weekend I went to Northern Kenya: an area called Turkana (after the big lake there) which by all measures ranks lowest on development for the country.

The trip itself was fascinating, seeing a completely new topography, and consequently the way of life.


In short, it’s a desert.

We were there in rainy season meaning there were some green shrubs on the expanse, but the terrain is such that no traditional horticulture can be done.

The people are (traditionally) nomadic. They own goats and roam the vast expanses looking for where they can be watered and fed.


Cash doesn’t hold that much currency.

Instead, wealth is measured by livestock, and this is what affords you a good wife.

The consequence of this is that money doesn’t play a big part in the economy. People live in huts (“manyatas”) made from surrounding grass, and life is set up to live off the land.

Whilst this may sound idyllic, the harsh reality is that life is tough – with malnutrition, illiteracy, and susceptibility to external factors such as weather changes.

In the main town (Lodwar) things were imported from the rest of Kenya.

This meant fresh produce prices were higher than elsewhere, and also that most things were more pricey. 

Importing entrepreneurs

Paradoxically though, Kenyans from other parts of the country have come to Turkana to make their money.

Since devolution in Kenya in 2013 (more autonomy is given to local governments), there has been an increase in government money being spent in the region, and so areas such as Lodwar are seeing a boom in construction.

Business trickles down, and the more commercially minded people in Kenya have headed up north to take advantage.

Speaking to some of the shopowners from other parts of Kenya, they said how people from Turkana don’t have the mindset around doing business.

Whilst that might seem a derogatory statement, it holds some truth, especially if you look at how the culture is almost completely void of traditional commerce.

If you grow maize in Central Kenya, you’re used to being settled in one place and selling your surplus to the community. That concept of owning something and then exchanging it for money is inherent in what you do. 

If all of your ancestors have made their wealth through herding goats, and occasionally bartering with them, it’s a fairly new concept to remain in one place and be able to generate an income.


All this is to say that when I’ve been to most areas of East Africa, I’ve seen how the area produces things, and as such, the local economy has an ability to convert that wealth into higher-value outputs, and on the whole, prosper.

With Turkana, it was very unclear how the money would enter the system, other than through charitable organisations, or government investment.

This means that its development path will likely have to be different (harder) than those places which can fundamentally generate wealth from their surroundings.

In other news…

Not tons to report. I’m booking flights to Italy in a few weeks so I will update you on that in the future.

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