In 2012 London-headquartered oil explorer Tullow Oil announced it had discovered crude in Kenya’s northernmost county of Turkana. Kenyans were of course excited by the news. The Turkana people had even higher expectations – that the oil would bring prosperity and an end to extreme poverty. The semi-arid region is one of the poorest in the country, with low literacy levels. Insecurity is high and local pastoralists have endured decades of raids by cattle rustlers.
Turkana is so cut off from the rest of the country that when people travel to Nairobi they jokingly talk of “going to Kenya”. The 300km road between Turkana’s capital, Lodwar, and Kitale links the region to the rest of the country. But the road is mostly dilapidated.
Until last year, low-cost airline Fly540 was the only operator running scheduled flights to Lodwar. But in recent months more local airlines, mostly operating relatively small aircraft, have begun flying the route, citing rising demand due to increasing economic activities in Turkana.
Last September, Safarilink Aviation launched flights connecting Nairobi with Lodwar and the town of Lokichar where most recent oil finds are located.
“People in Lodwar have been isolated for so long. Everything has to be taken in by road and the security situation between the Lodwar and Kitale road is not good. Buses have to travel under escort. So this was a potentially good route because there is a demand for it. There are traders going up and down as well as bank managers [and] suppliers,” says John Buckley, managing director of Safarilink Aviation.
Earlier this month another airline, Skyward Express, also started flying to Lodwar. And a new operator, called Air Turkana, is being set up by Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), an organisation founded by renowned paleoanthropologist Dr Richard Leakey. Turkana is a key attraction for geological researchers focused on human prehistory and related earth and natural science studies. One of the oldest nearly complete human fossils, known as Turkana Boy, was unearthed there in 1984 by a team led by Dr Leakey.
“We have been working there for years and we know the difficulty of getting people in,” says Patrick Eyoko, director of operations for Air Turkana. “The terrain is so bad it can take three days to reach some areas. Dr Leakey also wants to support economic transformation in that region and to accomplish this it is important to ease access to northern Kenya.”
Safarilink’s Buckley says the “initial attraction” in Lodwar was the unveiling of big investment projects. There are multiple oil companies exploring for oil in the greater Turkana area. There is also Africa’s largest single wind power scheme under construction on the shore of Lake Turkana. The €623m ($690m) Lake Turkana Wind Power Project (LTWP) will generate over 300MW of electricity for the Kenyan national grid.
The region also has several tourist attractions, including Lake Turkana, a massive inland sea that is the largest desert lake in the world. In 2013 more than 1,000 local and international tourists traveled to Turkana to view the hybrid solar eclipse from the Sibiloi National Park, which lies on the northeastern shore of Lake Turkana.
Buckley says due to all these activities, a growing number of people need to travel to Lodwar.