Nairobi — Once famed as a source of fish, the lakeside city of Kisumu is fast fashioning itself into an academic town. After years of bearing the title of fishing capital, thanks to Lake Victoria, the city is positioning itself as an intellectuals' hub.
Many public and private universities are trooping to the town, to set up campuses. This is in addition to the Great Lakes University of Kisumu.
Already, five public universities and several private ones have established a firm presence in Kisumu, with campuses offering not only undergraduate but also postgraduate degree programmes.
The universities cite various factors for their insatiable interest in Kisumu. The vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof George Magoha, said the decision to establish a campus in Kisumu was in "response to market needs".
This, Prof Magoha said, during the launch of the Bachelor of Commerce and Masters of Business Administration programmes at the university's Kisumu campus, was by bringing their services closer.
The menu of courses on offer at these campuses in Kisumu is varied. From business and information technology to public health and education, the universities are offering an array of undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses.
Within the town centre, at least five universities have pitched tent, with others operating in the outskirts. They include Maseno University, which though located in the western Kenya region, has moved to stamp its authority by setting up a campus in Kisumu.
The presence of the institutions of higher learning in the town is definitely not a passing cloud. Some are in the process of establishing permanent bases in the city. These universities are keen on acquiring land and putting up their campuses, as is the case with the University of Nairobi.
The institution that currently operates from a former library in the town centre, is in the process of acquiring land in Mamboleo area. Others prefer buying existing buildings and converting them into campuses. This is the path taken by the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, which has converted a former high school into a campus.
In the past, the tertiary education in Kisumu was dominated by many middle level colleges among them Kisumu Polytechnic. But this is rapidly changing. Even these are getting sucked into the public universities' expansion schemes. Kisumu Polytechnic for instance is being eyed by Maseno University for conversion into one of its campuses.
In an earlier interview, the principal of Kisumu Polytechnic, Mr Francis Imbo, said that this was a stage in the institution's metamorphosis into a technology university.
Mr Imbo said that this was a government scheme aimed at making the technical and vocational training institution slightly different from the other conventional public universities.
That would translate into another item in the burgeoning list of universities in Kisumu. For the city's managers, the universities could just be the answer to some of the challenges they are facing in providing social services, such as health.
Kisumu mayor Sam Okello says that the town stood to benefit greatly from the higher education institutions' interest. This includes improvement of health facilities that partner with the universities for their academic programmes.
Moreover, he added, this would bring down the cost of education as parents would not have to send their children to far flung areas in search of education. Mr Okello says that the city's rising status as a learning urban centre is a positive sign and would make western Kenya a reservoir of knowledge.
According to him, the city is conducive to academic institutions. "We have adequate facilities with room for expansion," the mayor said, adding that there was, however, need for investors to put up hostels to accommodate the growing number of students coming to the city in search of knowledge.
Analysts view the attraction of universities to Kisumu as the beginning of the city's long march to becoming a university city that would eventually transform its economic fortunes.
With a fishing industry that is on its knees, thanks to failing fish stocks in addition to the many collapsed industries. Perhaps these universities would be its saviour.
Prof Calestous Juma, a scholar and founder of the Victoria Institute of Science and Technology, which is also to be based in Kisumu, says that apart from a functional infrastructure, its geographical location and availability of personnel give the city an edge.
Prof Juma says what is now required is to impart entrepreneurial skills to herald a revival of the city. The rapid development of university education in Kisumu comes at a time when Nyanza Province, is grappling with dismal academic performance in primary and secondary education national examinations.