Armed with a rubber whip fitted to a wooden handle, Mzee John Cheruiyot braves the morning chill as he drives his four donkeys on the edge of the tarmac road on the Kyogong-Bomet highway.
Donning a red baseball cap barely concealing his grey afro hair, a worn out brown jacket with a hood, a T-shirt that has weathered many seasons, a faded black pair of trousers and an unpolished brown pair of shoes, no one gives the old man a second glance.
Mzee Cheruiyot randomly cracks the whip on the animals in a bid to speed up their slackening pace even as they reel from a load of sand stuffed into gunny bags and hanged on their backs.
Toto, the oldest of the animals regarded as a beast of burden in the society, grimace in pain as the whip cracks a wound around the anal area caused by a rope used to harness the load on the body so it does not fall during transportation.
At Nyangores Bridge, a kilometre from the Bomet town's Central Business District, the animals enter the busy road, halting the flow of traffic ends of the road as they trudge along on the hot tarmac.
The impatient motorists honk their car horns, forming an irregular and irritating blast, while other throw insults at Mzee Cheruiyot as he struggles to steer the animals - nicknamed Kijana, Wamboi, Toto and Taparkut - to cross the bridge on the swollen Nyangores river.
Unknown to the motorists and startled residents, the animals known in the Kalenjin dialect as Sikiriet (singular) and Sikirok (plural), are a key plank in the rapidly developing real estate in Bomet town and the neighbourhood.
Town's unique aspect
The boom in real estate has pushed up the demand for housing units and office space with the onset of devolution and establishment of Bomet University College.
While in other regions, tractors, pick-up vehicles and trucks are used to transport sand and other construction to the sites, use of donkeys is unique to Bomet town that has attracted a lot of investors in the construction industry.
One donkey carries a wheelbarrow load of sand which retails for Sh120 once delivered to Bomet town or any construction sites in the vicinity.
Visitors to the town are usually perturbed when they come across tens of donkeys causing traffic snarl-ups on the main highways and streets as they are driven by owners to deliver sand or back to quarry sites.
"The trade has enabled us to meet our daily financial needs including paying school fees for our children, medication, clothing and food for the family," said Mr Cheruiyot.
The father of seven who has been engaged in the trade for the last four years says depending on the orders one has secured, the donkeys have the capacity to do four trips a day. With his four donkeys, he makes an average of Sh 960 daily.
"A donkey is a precious animal to most of us engaged in transportation of sand. It is easy to maintain as it feeds on grass by the roadside and in the farm. It does not easily fall sick as it is a hardy animal. In case of injuries, there are veterinary officers in the area who treat them," said Mr Cheruiyot.
For the last 20 years, the animals have been involved in the transportation of sand with both women and men engaged in the trade that has picked momentum over time, leading to opening up of small quarry sites in private farmlands.
The quarry sites are confined to Kyogong, Sachora, Masare and Chepkisui villages in Nyangores ward, Chepalungu constituency.
Mrs Florence Chemanyei, a sand dealer, said she has benefited a great deal from her three donkeys, having educated her children and used the proceeds to provide medication to her husband - Philiph Chemanyei - who is battling poor health after he suffered a stroke.
"I have used the proceeds from the sand transport business to provide for my family including treatment for my husband who is partly paralysed," said Mama Florence.
She has employed three workers who excavate the sand and transport it to construction sites.
The government has been challenged to give opportunities to sand dealers to supply the material to construction sites funded with the taxpayers' money.
They mine the sand directly from their farms which are not agriculturally productive.
"During the construction of the County Assembly Speakers' residence which is hardly a kilometre from our operation base, we were not considered for supply of sand. The same case applies to construction of the county assembly perimeter wall, debating chamber and construction of the Governor's residence," said Mr Joseph Korir, a donkey and quarry owner.
Mr Korir has 10 donkeys which he bought at an average of Sh 15,000 each, but lately the price has nose-dived to Sh9,000 due to the closure of abattoirs that were licensed in Mogotio and Naivasha by the government to slaughter and sell the animal's meat.
The donkeys are also used to transport sand from quarries uphill to the roadside, as tractors and trucks cannot access the sites.
One passing by the Kyogong area on the Longisa -Bomet highway would find heaps of sand by the road side with the animals making deliveries to be loaded to waiting trucks, as others directly transport it to town with the animals to service orders from clients.
"Chances are 30 percent of the sand used in construction in Bomet town, especially in residential units was delivered using donkeys," says Mr Leonard Langat, the branch chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The people's 'trucks'
Mrs Janeth Keter, a donkey owner, said women in the region value donkeys as they are used in transportation of goods, especially fresh farm produce to various trading centres during open air market days.
"Donkeys come in handy in transportation of fresh farm produce to trading centres for sale besides being used to fetch water from local rivers for domestic use. These are our trucks," said Mrs Keter.
The animals are preferred as they can supply in small quantities for those who are putting up housing units in phases and do not require use of trucks.
Donkey owners in the region have called for a review of the recent High Court ruling lifting the ban on the slaughter and sale of the animal's meat in Kenya.
It follows fears that legalising the trade would lead to re-emergence of theft of the animals in the region.
"We are appealing to animal welfare organisations and well-wishers to come to our rescue by moving to court to have the ruling reviewed as a matter of urgency," said Mr Stephen Rotich, the chairman of the Donkey Owners Association in the county.
"With the opening of slaughterhouses in Naivasha and Mogotio, many people lost their donkeys and were unable to trace them with the criminals striking in the middle of the night," said Mr Rotich.
A donkey retails for between Sh5,000 to Sh10,000 in the region, but had risen to Sh 15,000 before the ban was imposed by the high court last year.
High Court judge Richard Mwongo lifted the ban after the government failed to respond to a petition filed by Star Brilliant, challenging a legal notice by Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, which banned the sale of donkey meat in Kenya.
In the petition that named Attorney-General Paul Kihara and Mr Munya as respondents, Star Brilliant stated that the order violated its rights and called for its lifting. The government did not enter a response despite being served.
"The government has failed to sufficiently defend this case and this court quashes the Legal Notice 63 of 2020 as it violates the rights of Star Brilliant," Justice Mwongo stated in his ruling on the legal notice issued by Mr Munya in February 2020.
Dr Wilson Serem, Bomet County's director of veterinary services, said it takes one year for a donkey to deliver after conception.
Dr Serem said a female donkey takes an average of five years before it matures for reproduction while a jack (male) takes six months to reach sexual maturity.
Kenya has four donkey abattoirs - Star Brilliant (Naivasha), Goldox Kenya (Mogotio), Silzha (Turkana), and Fuhai (Machakos).
The latest statistics indicate that there are 1.2 million donkeys in the country.