Even if you miss the city skyline on the Subuiga descent while entering Isiolo from Nairobi, you can soon tell you are on to something big happening in the horizon.
Upcoming tourist hotels spring up suddenly on both sides of the Great North Highway as you drive past Maili Saba.
But you will not be in Isiolo County until you can clearly see the town since both sides of the highway are in Meru County.
Until about 10 years ago, Isiolo was just a simple dusty town set on both sides of the highway. There was no other paved street in the town before devolution and only about two banks had a branch there.
A well-told story in the town is that when the then frequent bandit attacks erupted, residents of the town would crowd on top of the few storeyed buildings and watch the exchange of fire just outside the town.
Today, the town faces other threats to its existence despite its strategic location at the centre of Kenya.
Major projects such as the Lapsset Corridor and tarmacking or roads into northern Kenya have Isiolo as a key connection point.
Isiolo International Airport, part of this grand plan to open up Kenya’s interior, is already complete.
But border disputes with neighbouring Meru continue to hinder Isiolo town’s expansion. The town sits right at the border with Meru County and some of its developments, including the airport, are claimed to sit on the neighbouring county’s land.
Land adjudication is a hot issue with areas such as Gambella and Ngaremara claimed by both counties.
A civil case filed at the High Court in Nairobi by 11 Isiolo petitioners claimed that the national government was favouring Meru in the dispute, and sought to stop surveying of the land that was ongoing at the time.
The court issued a stay and directed the parties to the National Land Commission, but Isiolo leaders later said Meru had continued with the survey despite the court order.
“There is a status quo (in place) that does not permit either Isiolo or Meru counties to roll out any activity on the contested areas. But we are perturbed that our counterparts are surveying and placing beacons on the contested areas before the matter has been addressed,” said Isiolo County Assembly Majority Leader Isack Fayo.
Isiolo County also hosts military barracks and training schools that severely constrict expansion of settlement. This has also been a source of conflict with the locals over land ownership.
In September last year, the Department of Defence gave residents of Isiolo Central a 30-day notice to give space for the Kenya School of Infantry. Failure to comply, they were warned, would mean forceful eviction.
The army’s School of Artillery, along the Isiolo-Meru border, and School of Combat Engineering in Isiolo also warned residents of Ngaremara and Gambella locations to leave.
The eviction letter from Defence principal secretary was addressed to the Interior ministry who sent the instructions to Isiolo County Commissioner Joseph Kanyiri.
Isiolo is an expansive county and while some of the areas occupied by the military are not in the immediate neighbourhood of the town, the military activities restrict the growth of housing developments.
Isiolo Woman Representative Rehema Jaldesa asked the military to move elsewhere, saying the land under dispute belonged to the residents.
“Isiolo is surrounded by four military camps that are encroaching on settlement areas. When they came here, they did it illegally. The locals will not go anywhere from their ancestral land,” she said in response to the eviction notice.
To add to the land pressure are three game sanctuaries – Buffalo Springs, Shaba and Bisanadi national reserves under Isiolo County.
Though largely run down in recent years, the county government has sought intervention by Kenya Wildlife Service to revive the game reserves to lift the northern tourism circuit.
Formerly administered as part of the defunct Isiolo County Council, Isiolo town was later gazetted as a municipality with a management board appointed by the county governor.
Apart from three streets that managed to get paved between 2013 and 2017 by the national government, the town is currently undergoing an improvement of its Central Business District roads under the World Bank financed Kenya Urban Support Programme.
The tarmacked streets will create a loop leading to county and national government offices, the entry to the Isiolo International Airport and a short drive to the Isiolo Matercare Mission Hospital.
Despite this, residents say there are other issues that hinder the town’s growth.
“The paving of the roads is the best gift that business people in this town have enjoyed since devolution came into the scene,” Hussein Mohamed, Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Isiolo branch chairman, told Home & Away.
He, however, said the town’s growth is being pushed down by lack of synergy between the government and businesses.
“Investment is driven by incentive, dialogue and linkages between business people and the two levels of government, which is lacking here,” said Mr Mohamed.
“There is a big concentration of organisations offering business financing in this town, but you will be surprised that the uptake is very low.”
Pointing at the changing skyline in the town, he claimed that many property developers are sitting on a landmine with impressive buildings that are on average at only 10 per cent occupancy.
Mohamed said the town is on the verge of a phenomenal take-off driven by three national projects that will give locals significant dividends.
The projects are the Isiolo International Airport, Isiolo Abattoir and Lapsset.
“We are told the Isiolo Airport runway is longer to accommodate the landing of large airplanes, especially cargo freight that will enable them to ship flowers and fresh produce from the Meru and Laikipia hinterland,” Mohamed said.
The abattoir, whose construction started with financing under the 2009 Economic Stimulus Package under the Kibaki government, is seen as another delayed project that could make Isiolo a hub of large scale livestock trading with the added benefit of related industries such as hides and skins, hospitality and transport.
“This should be our moment of glory because the defunct Isiolo County Council used to collect only Sh200 million annually but the current devolved unit gets an average of Sh4 billion in revenue from the national government,” said Mohamed.
Adan Jirma, who leads a neighbourhood association in the town, said the widespread lack of land ownership documents in the area was the biggest hindrance to its take-off.
“The lack of ownership documents has impeded development of both residential and commercial property in Isiolo especially in Mwangaza, Kiwanjani and Checheles estates where plot ownership is subject to multiple legal tussles,” he said.
According to projections by Jirma’s neighbourhood association – Mwangaza Plot Help Group – less than 300 residents have titles in Isiolo town, all acquired through individual efforts.
“The land ownership mess in this town is mainly because the county council failed to release land to private hands in tandem with population explosion,” added Mohamed.
Land dealer George Mbijjiwe said they expected huge appreciation in land prices once the titling crisis is resolved.
“A plot measuring 50 by 100 feet in the town centre now fetches Sh30 million to Sh40 million. At Millennium area it will be Sh15 million to Sh20 million, getting cheaper as you get further from the town centre,” he said.