Things were certainly looking up when I last visited Busia, a small city in Kenya, in mid-2007. Busia, home to about 60,000 residents, spans Kenyaâ€™s western border with Uganda: half the town sits on the Kenyan side and half in Uganda. As befits a border town, Busia is well endowed with gas stations, seedy bars, and hotels catering to the truckers who spend the night on the way from Nairobi to Uganda.
When I visited last June, the city was experiencing an economic renaissance. Busiaâ€™s first supermarkets, ATMs, Internet cafÃ©s, and car rental businesses were all open, and residential suburbs had formed on the edge of town. The small dukasâ€”shops selling home food supplies and airtime for now-omnipresent cell phonesâ€”were freshly painted with advertisements for local dairy products. And most importantly, the road from Kisumu, the economic hub of the region and Kenyaâ€™s third largest city, to Busia had become a paved, two-lane highway all the way to the border, expediting trade with Ugandaâ€™s productive factories and farmers.
Yet, barely a decade ago, poverty and desperation were pervasive there, as in all of western Kenya.