Sunday, October 12, 2008



OCTOBER 12 2008

By Morton Saulo

A journey to northern Kenya is known to be a long and dreary one. Visitors are treated to firsthand hardship — from lack of basic necessities such as water to means of communication.

But a small centre in the newly created Lagdera District is fast shattering that picture.

Situated 100km north of Garissa, along the Garissa-Mandera Road, Dertu is a typical desert terrain. It covers an area of about 750sq km with a total population of just over 5,200, mainly pastoral and nomadic community. It is close to Dadaab refugee camp and takes not less than 14 hours to reach from Mandera.

From a once sleepy village, it is bustling with activity. Loads of trucks with animals and buses arrive at the centre as early as 6am.

When the Standard on Saturday visited the area recently, it found a different picture from what used to be a remote nomadic village.

The small picturesque village has become the convergence zone for traders. They arrive in droves, men and women, with the drive to achieve their targets. For those wishing to transact business in Garissa, the provincial headquarters, this is the place to be.

Just 10 years ago, Dertu was mainly a transit point for nomads traversing the vast region in search of pasture and water. Then, the name Dertu rarely featured on people’s lips.

But its reputation has grown and it is even being touted as a possible administrative centre for the newly created Lagdera District.


Thanks to an ambitious UN project to promote the centre as a millennium village, it is now the most wired town in this part of Kenya. It is connected to mobile communication and the Internet.

Although there is only one mobile service provider covering the area — Zain Africa — Dertu is now part of the global communication network.

Residents are beaming with joy and attribute the centre’s growth to mobile phone coverage.

"If this is what residents of Nairobi and other major towns boast of, it is a good development for our community," says a trader, as he attempts to make a call using his mobile phone.

Social amenities are quickly coming up, perhaps in anticipation of future business prospects.

A dispensary is already in place and is being manned by a Government employed nurse.

A boarding primary and secondary school has already been built, though the student population is still low. Locals are upbeat and expect Dertu to rise to a regional business hub. Indeed, compared to the standards of other parts of northern Kenya, Dertu can be considered a paradise. With the developments, there has been an influx of nomads flocking the centre, and some opt to settle because of the goodies Dertu has to offer.

Only a dream

But the greatest joy remains the connection to the rest of the world, something their neighbours can only dream of. Previously, one would be forced to travel more than 100km to use a phone.

Ahmed Mohamed, Millennium Development Village coordinator, says project workers, Government officials, and pastoralists can now use technology to monitor the status of water, pasture, pests and diseases.

Mohammed adds technology has made it easier for traders to transact business.

"Monthly cash flow in animal trade has reached Sh353,000 a month, which is a sign of good business," he says.

From almost zero, mobile phone ownership has reached 100, says Mohammed. This is no small achievement for an area being reached by technology for the first time.

Khalif Aden, a livestock trader, says he has seen the centre transform from almost nothing to a ‘Las Vegas’.

He recalls that 10 years ago, the centre had nothing apart from an animal watering point dug by Unicef.

"When the millennium village was established followed by the mobile phone company, people began to flock the area to transact business from as far as Garissa," notes Aden.

He adds: "The days when we would travel with our animals to Garissa without knowing the price variation are long gone. This has saved us a lot of money."

On a good day, he can sell up to 50 animals whose prices range between Sh10,000 to 15,000.

Sophia Ali, Dertu Primary and Secondary School deputy head teacher, says administration has been made a lot easier. With a click of a mouse, information is relayed within seconds.

"With the Internet, the school saves a lot of money and has reduced bottlenecks in administration. If we need to communicate with our education offices in Garissa, it is just a touch of a button and everything is done," she says.

Mortality rates

Sophia adds the developments are attracting people to settle in Dertu. "Enrolment is steadily rising and we can easily reach parents through mobile phones," she says.

She notes her students are quickly learning how to use computers and the Internet.

The school has a population of 500, with 135 of them being girls.

Abdi Mohammed, a nurse at Dertu Dispensary, says mortality rates have dropped thanks to improved communication between the centre and the provincial headquarters in Garissa.

"We get 50 to 60 patients on a daily basis suffering from malaria, track infection, pregnancies and even snake bites," he says.

He explains that for serious cases, the dispensary can easily call for assistance from Garissa.

"With a working refrigerator powered by solar panels, residents of Dertu are assured their medicine is safe and secure," he says.

Area District Officer Evans Kyalo says mobile phones and Internet has improved security in the area.

"From my operation base in Dadaab, my team is able to monitor the area and intervene in case there are issues to be settled," Kyalo notes.


Chris Gabriel, Zain Africa chief executive, says his company plans to increase the current network coverage in Dertu from 24km radius to 60km.

"The mobile network infrastructure we currently have in Dertu is temporary. But from the development it has brought in this remote area, we will be expanding the network coverage to cover a radius of 60km," says Gabriel.

He says as part of corporate social responsibility, his firm plans to donate mobile phones and airtime to livestock traders to spur growth.