The Importance of Secondary Towns

Last week I was so lucky to travel through the Eastern region of Kenya. Half of the time we were actually in a car, driving from one place to the other. That is not a bad thing considering one can only be in awe of the degree of variety in landscapes and agro-ecological zones along the way. From pastoral to coastal communities, from arid to highlands: it was all there.

Focus Group Discussion on Youth Involvement

One of the things that struck me in particular was the number of towns we passed through. Perhaps to my own fault,  I tend to associate the term urban migration with large cities. In Kenya, where I currently live and work, this would include cities such as Mombasa, Kisumu and of course Nairobi. But speaking to some young people, asking them where they and their friends travel to in search of jobs and witnessing the high degree of economic activity while passing through these towns, made me think again.

One of the places we visited was Kitui, a town with 150.000 inhabitants (back at home we would
call this a city). Rural youth from around migrate to Kitui often in search of employment opportunities. Some of those jobs might include burning trees for charcoal production, transporting charcoal, baking bricks, transporting and selling of vegetables on the local market, digging and other construction work, car washing and mechanics, vendor in grocery shops, etcetera.

Of course the definition of ‘urban’ is rather vague. One place we visited was Mwatate, a town with just over 5000 inhabitants (I grew up in a place like this and we called it a village). Yet youth from the surrounding rural areas found reason to move there take up the boda boda jobs (motorbike taxi), working in mom and pop chops, engage in trading, etcetera. What will support the increase in economic activity in Mwatate even more is the construction of a tarmac road, sub-contracted to a Chinese company  (see photo below). Perhaps not surprisingly, this has been conveniently planned in the run-up to the elections taking place in August this year.

Construction of a tarmac road, leading up to the election

A leading authority on this topic of ‘secondary towns’  is Luc Christiaensen of the World Bank. In a blogpost co-authored by Ravi Kanbur from Cornell University they write that “cross-country evidence suggests that poverty declines faster when people leave agriculture for secondary towns and their rural hinterlands, than when they move to cities.” As it turns out “the economies of scale associated with many of the activities most developing countries focus on, can already be captured at much smaller urban scales”.

They provide a telling example from the rural population of Kagera, in Tanzania, in which migration patterns were tracked over two decades (1991-2010):

“As expected, those who made it to Dar es Salaam, saw their incomes more than triple; they all escaped poverty. Those who remained farmers in the rural areas, also saw their incomes rise, but by only 60 percent. Those who left agriculture for the secondary towns or the rural nonfarm sector experienced a doubling of their income, with the share of people living in poverty declining from 64 percent in 1991-4 to 25 percent in 2010. Yet, when looking at their contribution to overall consumption growth and poverty reduction, it was those who moved to the towns and their hinterlands who contributed most (42 and 50 percent respectively). There were simply many more of them who made it to these urban centers (one in three), while only very few made it to Dar es Salaam (one in seven).”

Would it not be interesting to think how we can help a young person, in a cost-effective manner, to grow his bricks business? Or to produce charcoal in a more sustainable way? Supporting a micro-entrepreneur to scale up his basic processing of agricultural products? Or perhaps to support successful small entrepreneurs venture into other business activities, make profits and employ others? This can be done in a variety of ways, by providing support via unconditional cash transfers  or support mechanisms combining technical, business and soft skills training with loans/grants.

Currently most youth employment programmes are either focused on urban areas, by which they mean large cities, or rural areas looking at self-employment (entrepreneurship) opportunities. However the opportunities in these smaller urban areas deserve, perhaps, a bit more of our attention.

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