Magadi: A town like no other in Kenya

By Our Reporter

Rarely visited by many people because of its remote location at the Kenyan south border with Tanzania, Magadi area is known for being one of the hottest and driest places of the country and for its pinkish mirror-like soda lake.

Located on the lake’s east shore and home to Magadi Soda factory is Magadi town, Kenya’s only privately owned urban centre where a private organisation virtually owns and runs the social and political lives of its residents and serves members of the pub­lic, albeit in a restricted manner.

In Magadi township, everything is owned, run and regulated by the Tata Chemi­cals Company Ltd, Africa’s largest soda ash manufacturer and one of Kenya’s leading exporters.

From the Level Four Hospital, that gets medicine from the County Government, the only primary and secondary schools in the enclave belongs to the company.

The roads, avenues and all the streets, the po­lice station, petrol station and all the eateries are properties of the company.

In other words, if the company ceases to func­tion there will be no life in Magadi. The electricity that serves the town and the entire property was specifically acquired by the company direct from Nairobi.

Thorough vetting is done prior to letting out business premises and those lucky to strike a deal with the company in either supply chain or to run other businesses are advised to plan their accom­modation before setting foot in the town.

Built in 1926 by Magadi Soda Company, all properties in Magadi township are erected in a British industrial town style that puts more em­phasis on how easily workers access the soda ash plant.

In the past century of its existence, the com­pany has changed ownership many times but properties in the town, including a market, shops, a shopping centre, a matatu stage and a police sta­tion complete with a dozen police officers, remain in the tight grip of the company.

Senior managers we talked to say properties within the township are never for sale because such an action would affect the entire value of the company and interfere with the operations of soda ash and salt production, which is its core business.

Tata Chemicals Company, which acquired the property a few years ago, owns more than 220,000 hectares in the area.

The resourceful Lake Magadi is in the heart of this chunk of land. The township is actually an island inside the salty lake and it is accessed by road and rail via causeways — raised railways and roads over the heavy salty water.

Housing for employees is allocated according to the worker’s position in employment.

In Magadi township, structures of staff ac­commodation are explicit so that casuals live in rooms that are part of most highrise flats while the rank and file in the permanent employment cadre live in bedsitters in similar structures.

Senior managers live in properties that are a little further apart from one another.

And in the world of the chosen few are mag­nificent castles only seen in Nairobi’s Karen. It is in these exclusive housing units that the few who belong to centres of power in Magadi Township live.

The elites of the area have their fun at the ex­clusive Magadi Soda Sports Club until 11pm.

Clubs for the less endowed within the town­ship close two hours earlier. The Sports Club is a specially designed outfit that equals a five-star hotel in Nairobi. The structure and facilities of the club are built on about four-acre plot.

It is practically the only town that has full control of its population at night. The town has a population of about 5,000 residents, who are mostly Christians.

St. Thomas Church in the centre of Magadi township serves several denominations which have been allocated a slot for prayers each Sun­day of the week.. The Church serves the staff and the local Maasai communities around the lake without any restrictions from the establishment.

About 75 per cent of the entire populace of the township are permanent employees of Tata Chem­icals, and other people offering services related to the existence of the company.

It is possible to maintain this figure because al­though there are two guest houses built and owned by the company, these facilities are not open to members of the public in the town.

The main guest house has eight lavishly fur­nished rooms while the sports club has four master en-suite rooms.

All these guest facilities are for people who visit the township to do business with the com­pany. There is no room for paid lodgings here.

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