For nearly two decades, the Rift Valley towns of Eldoret and Nakuru boasted a vibrant textile industry that employed thousands of people.
As the machines at these factories purred on, farmers in the region found a ready market for their cotton, the many salaried workers injected cash into these towns and the surrounding villages got their cut by feeding and otherwise propping up the relatively well-heeled townspeople. So booming was the economy in the 1980s through early 1990s that word had it that the textile industry was the largest employer in the region, second only to the civil service.
Eldoret had Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex), a giant parastatal, while in Nakuru the big factories included Spin-Knit Limited.
Then the boom crashed, partly due to an influx of cheap second-hand clothes with the onset of mitumba business. This left the entire textiles value chain suffering. Jobs were cut as firms scaled down operations. The knock-on effect robbed Nakuru and Eldoret towns of their economic sheen.
Mismanagement and corruption saw even the few firms that could have survived fold.
The government is, however, keen to revitalise the textile sector and make Eldoret and Nakuru major textile hubs in Kenya and East Africa.
In Eldoret, for instance, Rivatex has undergone a major facelift, rekindling hope of new opportunities for cotton farmers.
Modernisation of the state-owned textile firm at Sh5 billion has expanded production capacity to more than 30,000 metres of fabric daily, up from 5,000 metres about four years ago.
According to the firm's CEO, Prof Thomas Kipkurgat, the company has the capacity to create more than 3,000 direct jobs.
"Revival of Rivatex has not only increased employment opportunities, but it has also helped increase the number of farmers growing cotton to more than 4,000. We encourage local farmers to grow cotton on a large scale because the market is ready," Prof Kipkurgat said.
The Nation learnt that Rivatex has signed a cotton-planting agreement with more than 10 counties in the Rift Valley and the Eastern regions, including Elgeyo-Marakwet, West Pokot, Baringo and Kitui, in a strategy aimed at cutting costs by reducing dependency on imported raw materials.
Rivatex has been producing uniforms for various institutions in the country including the police and other disciplined forces.
The firm has also played a key role in the fight against Covid-19 by producing masks and other personal protective equipment.
In the 2021/2022 financial year, the government has allocated Sh500 for expanding and modernising its operations.
The textile firm, which was a giant parastatal in the 90s, roared back to life three years ago, thanks to a government-to-government deal between Kenya and India that saw some Sh6 billion pumped in to upgrade its ageing machinery.
The factory, which had been rendered moribund by years of corruption and mismanagement, was salvaged by Moi University in 2007.
In Nakuru, the devolved unit is in talks with a number of investors who have expressed interest to set up more textile and apparel factories in the region.
The devolved unit is also banking on the planned Naivasha Special Economic Zone to create more jobs.
Nakuru County Trade and Tourism executive Raymond Komen, in an interview with the Nation, said quite a number of textile-industry investors had expressed willingness to set up base at the much awaited Naivasha Special Economic Zone.
"Manufacturing is part of the Jubilee administration's Big Four Agenda. We shall continue to support and fully exploit the potential of the textile sector as we provide investors with a conducive business environment. As a county we are also keen to increase the share of business flowing to local textile industries," said Mr Komen.
The establishment of the Naivasha Special Economic Zone last week received a major boost after the government allocated Sh350 million for its development in the 2021/2022 financial year.
According to the Sh3.66 trillion budget highlights read by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani last week, the Sh350 million will support the development of the Naivasha Industrial Park, Kenanie Leather Industrial Park and Athi River Textile Hub.
The state-owned Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) has moved to diversify its revenue streams by inviting investors to set up export-only textile and apparel plants on a 309-acre industrial zone.
The KenGen Green Energy Industrial Park, which has four zones, is connected to the Mombasa port via the standard gauge railway line.
It offers prospective companies direct connection to cheap electricity. The firms will enjoy cheaper geothermal steam and electricity.
KenGen's Olkaria property is divided into four plots: Site A (70 acres), Site B (82 acres), Site C (100 acres) and 57 acres reserved for investors.
Already, Nakuru has three textile factories - Bedi Investments Limited, Trendy Links Limited based in Bahati sub-county, Spin-Knit Limited and Nakuru Industries Limited.
Trendy Links Limited is owned and managed by entrepreneur Esther Kimani.
Bedi Investments Limited is among the textile companies that were contracted in 2019 to produce and supply the new police uniforms.
On June 2019, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i visited the factory in Nakuru Town West to assess the progress of garment manufacturing.
Other companies benefiting from tenders for producing uniforms for the disciplined forces include Thika Cloth Mills Ltd (TCM), Rivatex, Alpha Knit in Ruiru and Sunflag in Nairobi.
They were contracted to supply uniforms to the army, police, prisons and the National Youth Service.
Bedi Investments Limited, which is run by the Jas Bedi family, employs at least 1,000 youths at its Nakuru factory alone.
It has also expanded its business and opened branches in Nairobi and other parts of the country.
Spin-Knit Limited, which goes by the brand name 'Robin', is among the leading manufacturers of 100 per cent acrylic hand-knitting yarn, machine-knitting yarn, knitwear, fashionwear and blankets.
The factory, which is situated along the Nakuru-Eldoret Highway, employs hundreds of people.
Apart from textiles, the group is well known for its plastic and paper manufacturing operations throughout East Africa.
With these and other strategic developments, Nakuru town has started rising again in terms of industries and private investments.
In the past one year, for instance, a number of big firms, including leading paint manufacturer Crown Paints Kenya, Toyota Tsusho East Africa Limited and Simba Cement have pitched tent in Nakuru, inspiring hope of the town reclaiming its 'industrial hub' tag.