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Rural-Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains

Sylvain Racaud
Bob R. Nakileza
François Bart
et al.

Part 1

2. The role of small and medium sized towns in Eastern Africa mountains: new opportunities or challenged position?

Hélène Mainet et Jean-Charles Edouard

Texte intégral

1In the context of Eastern African mountains, relationships with cities are an important element as spatial mobility, exchanges and linkages between rural and urban spaces are strong. The place taken by small and medium sized towns is particularly interesting. They are playing an old and renewed role as intermediates, as outposts between rural and urban economies, acting as relays in territories interactions and assuming functions of poles of centrality, even at a second level. They take part in the setting of migration flows and are places of diffusion of development through their public equipment, services and shops or enterprises. However, they are not always supported by national policies — which are often dedicated to major centres — and can suffer from globalization leading to the concentration of qualified people and activities in the upper levels of the urban hierarchy, more integrated in global networks. Local changes but also global and national strategies have modified classical ways of integration, articulating scales (local, national or international) and showing new actors.

2Our hypothesis is that the intermediate function played by small and medium sized towns is changing, between strengthening opportunities and weakening logics. The main issue is therefore their capacity to keep on structuring heterogeneous places and to link more numerous actors. The multiplication of development actors, mainly private, at different scales, who articulate or overlap their spatial practices with official and administrative limits, reinforces the territory complexity but also innovation processes based on relationships — urban-rural linkages or within the urban hierarchy.

  • 1 CORUS Program 6165 “Mountains and Medium Towns in East Africa. Environmental management, Flows of p (...)
  • 2 Fieldwork conducted in December 2008, July 2009 and July 2011.

3Fieldworks for the research program “Mountains and Medium-Sized Towns”1 in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania give elements of analysis. Surveys have been conducted with local private and public actors of development (municipal services, heads of associations, cooperatives and small and medium-sized enterprises), associated with meetings with shopkeepers and street vendors, on issues of networks and linkages2. The analysis is based on the case of medium towns (Mbale, Mbeya and Nyeri) associated with small towns (respectively Kapchorwa, Tukuyu and Karatina).

4Mbale is located at the foot of Mount Elgon, the “fruit and vegetable basket” for Uganda, next to the Kenya border. With 80,000 inhabitants it is the main urban centre of this rural area (fig. 6). Mbeya (in Tanzania) is located 850 kilometres southwest of Dar es Salam, in the Uporoto Montains and next to Mount Rungwe, on the TAZARA line, next to the Zambia and Malawi borders. It has around 400,000 inhabitants. The third case study is in Central Kenya Province, with Nyeri (100,000 inh.) as medium town and Karatina (7,000 inh.) as small town examples. They are located between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares Range. Regional contexts are quite similar with dynamic and changing mountain environments (evolution in farming and rural economies) and with high population density rural areas. Linkages between highland hinterlands and secondary towns are intense and diversified. Mbale and Mbeya are in border and off-centred situations, whereas Nyeri is more central and closer to the capital city of Nairobi (130 km).

5The examples of the above towns give information for the changing role of small and medium sized towns in their intermediate functions, in contexts of rapid evolution. They show the innovative capacities of actors and issues of new territorialities at stake through the growing role of middlemen and the process of integration in wider networks.

Figure 6. Location of studied area

Figure 6. Location of studied area

The traditional role of small and medium sized towns in the urban-rural interface

6The importance of small and medium sized towns in rural-urban relationships has for long been analysed in the African context and East African Mountains are particularly interesting for the understanding of those linkages.

Abundant literature and an opportune context

7French-speaking as well as English-speaking researchers have been interested in the role of secondary towns in the extraversion of rural economies (Rondinelli 1988, Simon 1992, Owuor 2007). The development of linkages between secondary towns and rural areas is crucial for economic development, farm production and commercial linkages (Chaléard 1996). The literature stresses this point in West Africa, where secondary towns are important at the regional level, interacting with rural hinterlands as markets and redistribution points, creating demand and stimulating local products (Giraut 1994). An urban-rural continuum is characteristic of this urbanization. Lots of regional or weekly markets are important commercial nodes for productions. They are places for the trade of farm and cattle products but also relay places between rural and urban zones.

8The role of those towns is not only dedicated to markets. They are administration places and areas of social and economic interactions for rural people. They play an important role as rural mobility catchments, in the opening of the mountains to urbanity through the diffusion of modernity and offer of services. The different denominations used show the diversity and complementary nature of their functions. If some authors insist on the size and then on the position in the urban hierarchy (small or medium towns), others focus on functions (market towns, district towns, sub-centres). Often, the stress is put on interactions and articulations played by those intermediate, median, transition towns through their support, distribution or network functions, changing according to the scale of analysis.

9Those secondary towns are described as the symbol of intermediate towns, as transition between major cities and other towns and rural areas, and vice versa, from the bottom to the top. They have an intermediation role in a hierarchical structure, between an urban centre and its regional hinterland as a centre of economic, social, cultural and historical services. The intermediate town is located between two extremities (the small and the big, the near and the far) and develops intermediation functions between spaces at different scales (local, regional, national, international). They are at the junction of flows of information, ideas, people, goods and services, a transition place between adjacent areas and global zones. What is important is their capacity to be integrated in global networks (Carrière 2008).

10East African mountains are interesting places for the analysis of urban-rural linkages. They form fertile areas, with ancient flows of people attracted by exceptional environmental conditions (on Mount Elgon, the rural districts of Manafwa and Bududa have between 800 to 1,000 inh./km2). They are the core of East African agricultural production, drivers of past colonial and current national economies. These mountains are “open” mountains, included in systems of exchange that integrate multi-scalar geographic dimensions: highland and lowland systems, humid and arid systems, rural-urban mobility, etc. (Bart 2003). Towns are linked with those mountains, with lots of markets, small localities or medium towns with old commercial and transport functions (Charlery de la Masselière et al. 2009). Relationships between highlands and lowlands, between rural and urban places are structuring those bastions of rurality and secondary towns are playing their role of intermediation.

The role of secondary poles growth at national and international scales

11At national and international scales, intermediate towns are important in three main ways. They play an important role in rural and regional people settlement, assume their part in territory administration and are privileged places for diffusion of social modernity (fig. 7).

Figure 7. Small and medium sized towns: an interface role in the rural-urban linkages in East-African Mountains

Figure 7. Small and medium sized towns: an interface role in the rural-urban linkages in East-African Mountains

12Their dedicated missions in national planning are often linked with their place in rural-urban relationships as they have strong linkages with their hinterlands (Tacoli 1998). Their place as services and commercial centres has for long been seen as crucial for the development of rural zones (to answer needs of inhabitants and producers). More recently, small towns are considered to play an important role in the linkages of their hinterlands with national and global markets but also in the provision of non-farm activities for the rural population, therefore widening the local economic basis. They also supply services and equipment for their regional hinterlands. The term “secondary”, often employed, underlines the dependency towards decision centres located in bigger towns or abroad. Local and regional subdivisions of administration or branches of economic and social services are numerous in medium towns, when headquarters are located in more important cities. Moreover, they are seen as centres from which innovation and modernization processes can spread in rural zones.

13The case studies show this secondary position (important regional centres) in structured urban networks, in off-centred even isolated situations (in the case of Mbeya) from national capitals. But their polarization on regional urban networks (on small towns) and rural areas is comforting them as intermediate poles.

Classical functions of district centre and pole of services at local and regional scales

14On the political and administrative sides, those towns are often district centres (their status depending on the administrative organization of the countries), with lots of civil servants and private actors. Thus, they are well equipped and have developed service industries such as a variety of goods and services equipment and infrastructures, good connections, important school systems, health services and finance activities.

15From an economic point of view, small towns are often collecting centres for farm products and places of important weekly markets. Daily, it is an important supply place of manufactured goods for urban and rural inhabitants. The redistribution function of agricultural goods is obvious in those towns through the omnipresence of shops selling products like fruits, vegetables or dairy. One of the most important places is the central market (and all its surrounding shops and stalls) but products can be found all over the town.

16In Mbale, vegetable retailers are supplied three times a week from mountain areas (in Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, bananas, etc.). Middlemen are important in this trade: they go to rural zones to buy products and bring them back to urban locations. It is easy to find products from all around Mount Elgon, from Kapchorwa in the North or Bududa in the South. An important part of the mountain production is also sold in other urban centres (Jinja, Kampala) and redistributed all over the country, through urban actors. The same occurs in Central Kenya with a market function even more important in Karatina (small town) than in Nyeri (medium town) due to a better location on the main road: Karatina market is famous for being very busy due to various productions from the mountains around (Mount Kenya and Aberdares slopes) and the proximity to Nairobi urban demand.

17Medium towns are also gateways to rural areas. They are nodes of redistribution for productions, often manufactured, “imported” (in the sense that they come from outside the area, either from other regions or from abroad). In Mbale, lots of products are coming from Kampala and other cities, or from Kenya. It is like the outpost from where products are redistributed (fig. 8). In the case of Mbeya, due to the border location and with the important railway and road lines, linkages are strong with all the sub-region (fig. 9). Mbeya is the concentration point for goods coming from a large area (fishes from the Great Lakes). It acts also as Malawi’s dry port (reloading function).

Figure 8. Mbale influence zone in the Mount Elgon area (Uganda)

Figure 8. Mbale influence zone in the Mount Elgon area (Uganda)

Figure 9. Mbeya, a redistribution centre for local, national and international products

Figure 9. Mbeya, a redistribution centre for local, national and international products

18Through intermediate towns, mountain areas are integrated to international markets. For example, farm inputs such as seeds or chemical products are widely used (and even more due to the evolution of farming practices). Fieldwork conducted in Mbale shows that retailers get their supplies for cattle (food or medicines) from Kampala or Kenya. The influence zone of these specialized shops covers the whole Mbale district and surrounding areas (within a radius of 40 to 50 km). Mbale itself has outposts in small towns like Kapchorwa, Budadiri and Bududa, closer to rural places. They are often more specialized. This system is similar in Tanzania, with Tukuyu acting as a relay for Mbeya influence. The place of Mbeya and Mbale in those commercial farming networks gives evidence of their centrality within mountain systems. The location in border zones is reinforcing this situation. They are mediator and intermediate in rural-urban linkages.

19Finally, the classical intermediation function of secondary towns is linked to the central criteria of connectivity (Nadou 2010). It is at the same time external (opening to state and outer markets, network issues) with strategic functions, and internal (towards surrounding areas) with essential daily functions (services centre, influence on hinterland, proximity issues). This old capacity of intermediate towns as catchment and distribution centres is a way to link rural economies to national and international economies (fig. 9). If this role is still active, it is submitted to important stakes linked with changes in agriculture (post-coffee economies, market gardening development) but also with impacts of broader politico-economic transformation.

Changes in the intermediation function of small and medium sized towns

20For two or three decades, the growth of medium towns has been taking place in changing rural dynamics, linked to local processes as well as impacts of more global evolutions.

The importance of new local initiatives

21The opening of new markets, liberalization of economies and emergence of new actors are accelerating changes in long-term established linkages. The involvement of producers in new productions and distribution networks (mainly market gardening) is redefining composite and unequal productive relationships, where land issues, access to water and environmental resources and availability of new communication tools become a relative advantage. Highlands that specialized in traditional commercial crops suffer from historical rigidity (land tenure and management issues). It is still uncertain if farmers have the capacity to invest in those new production sectors, to redefine their relations with markets and national (and even) international economies and to defend their products, with new forms of organizations and a better professionalization. Agricultural changes, new farm practices and social changes are closely linked. Coffee production is declining (with some differences depending on areas) either in estates and commercial productions or in village plots, often in combination with bananas as in the Mount Elgon area (Nakileza 2007). New productions benefitting from highland environmental resources are developing fast: market gardening for urban demand but also dairy products. Cabbages, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and carrots are exchanged daily and supply new markets from where middlemen or traders will transport them to urban centres (photo 1).

  • 3 Author’s translation: « Les territoires de montagne sont aujourd’hui investis par des forces, des e (...)

22Those agricultural changes have powerful impacts on land structures and social organization forms. With a strong demographic growth and investments of urban businessmen in farm production, the pressure on land is important. The development of market gardening shows that farmers are reactive to changes. But a complex and unequal social process is taking place, in a still fragile context where individual initiatives are important and collective organizations not always strong. Besides market gardening development, multiactivity is increasing within households holding multiple jobs or incomes in non farming activities often related to the production (transformation, selling and services). “Mountain territories are nowadays invested by forces and issues which challenge the notion of rurality and question their long-term acquired and assumed fertility, basis of their specificity”3 (Charlery de la Masselière et al. 2009: 311).

Photo 1. Retail trade of market gardening products in Karatina market, Kenya (Mainet 2011)

Photo 1. Retail trade of market gardening products in Karatina market, Kenya (Mainet 2011)

23These productive changes are associated with new forms of mobility and migration (circular, temporary, commuting). Small and medium sized towns are therefore centres for all sorts of mobility, from and to rural zones. Transport networks have been developing in and around intermediate towns for daily or weekly travel of people or transportation of products (bodaboda for short-distance and lowlands areas, tatas, matatu and taxis for highlands connections). Private actors, local and national, have invested in this opportunity area and are playing a crucial role in the integration of these economies to broader markets.

24New scales of relationships are at stake. Flows from highlands to lowlands give evidence of new territory frames and resource uses. Multi-resources and multiactivity are redefining trajectories and household strategies (Charlery de la Masselière et al. 2009). In this context, urban middlemen, mainly wholesalers and traders, whose role is often criticized but is important in the development of networks, but also farmers and producers who transport their own production (often combined with others) directly to markets, show their capacity for economic and social innovation. Farmers are weaving ties between multiple territories, between rural and urban areas and are promoting multi-scalar social and economic linkages.

Stakes associated with global changes

25In addition to the transformation of mountain economies and new derived linkages, the role of intermediation of secondary towns is also affected by the impact of more general changes (fig. 10).

Figure 10. Small and medium sized towns: new intermediation functions in changing context

Figure 10. Small and medium sized towns: new intermediation functions in changing context

26A positive aspect is often dedicated to this level of the urban hierarchy in the academic literature. Small and medium sized towns seem to be at a level where transformations are visible, measurable and the implementation of “good governance” more feasible than at other scales (Bertrand 1993, Owuor 2007, Pourtier 1991).

27The economic crisis, which leads to a rapid decline of incomes in most African countries, seems to have reinforced the role of secondary towns. Households’ incomes must be diversified and households’ and families’ strategies strengthened. Return migrations seem to be important in time of crisis and the “exurbanisation” phenomenon has been analysed, describing migrations from main urban centres to secondary ones (Bruneau 2002). In those towns, due to the proximity with rural economies and opportunities, with lower prices and rents than in bigger towns, economic crisis impacts seem less difficult to overcome.

28With the intensification of economic liberalization in countries like Uganda and Tanzania, an increasing number of actors are involved in rural-urban linkages and traditional references are blurred. Small and medium sized towns provide important public and private services and infrastructures for the development of farming and non-farming enterprises. Lots of rural activities are located in small towns, dealing with transport, building, wholesale and retail trade, financial and credit services and supplying urban as well as rural populations (Rondinelli 1988). These activities are good indicators of the urban influence of these centres. Karatina illustrates the important amount of businesses (table 3) involved in trade (more than 77 % of all the registered business permits in 2011), but also the diversification of activities with transport companies and services (professional and technical).

Table 3. Registered business permits in Karatina (Kenya)

Table 3. Registered business permits in Karatina (Kenya)

Source: Karatina Municipal Council (2011)

29With the development of liberalization, old cooperatives like the Tanganyika Farmers Association in Tanzania (with a regional branch in Mbeya) are competed with by new and often small private structures, giving better prices and conditions to members and better payment opportunities. The increasing demand for agro-inputs (fertilizers and chemicals, seeds and animal feed) is supplied by more and more private actors, visible all around small and medium-sized towns streets (photo 2).

Photo 2. Example of new retail shops for farmers (inputs) in Mbale (Mainet 2008)

Photo 2. Example of new retail shops for farmers (inputs) in Mbale (Mainet 2008)

30New issues are also important in the financial domain. Microcredit boards like SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies) or farmers associations are active. It is a quite recent phenomenon: most of the offices have been opened for less than ten years. In Mbale region, the Uganda Microfinance limited is an interesting example. It is a branch of the Equity Bank of Uganda. The main office is in Tororo (a medium town south of Mbale) but the operational office is in Mbale, in charge of the Mount Elgon region with Sironko, Kapchorwa and Manafwa areas. The bank provides loans for groups of farmers (with 10 to 20 members) for short-term periods (from 3 to 12 months). Analysing those organizations (associations, cooperatives or financial institutions) shows the importance of the urban network for the most structured ones: regional branches are located in medium towns (Mbale, Mbeya or Nyeri), local offices in small towns (Kapchorwa, Tukuyu or Karatina) and rural sub-branches in “market towns” (Bududa, Wanale) with representatives for more isolated rural areas.

31Those evolutions question the capacity of cooperation between actors and the effects on local development. A priori, they tend to reinforce the role of secondary towns by diversifying their services and by giving better prices and opportunities for farmers. But long-term impacts should still be measured, specifically the leading capacity of the smallest enterprises, often not well structured and whose viability is not confirmed in case of economic crisis. Another impact is short-circuiting of intermediate levels with direct access to rural areas by actors from main cities. It is very visible in the transport area with direct supply in rural areas and with the impact of new communication technologies. Farmers have now better and direct access to urban demand, can be informed of urban prices with direct cell phone calls, and don’t need secondary towns’ middlemen as much as before.

32On the political side, decentralization processes have been affecting most of the countries since the 1990’s, giving new opportunities for regional centres. Yet these reforms are not always strengthening their position with the creation of new rural districts (such as the Bududa and Manafwa districts in the Mbale region), which used to be dependent on the Mbale district. The issue is dealing with the capacity of the new authorities to cope with needs in terms of equipment and infrastructures with low financial resources. Few real cooperation policies are implemented between urban and rural districts and inter-territoriality development is lacking whereas linkages are strong.

33Another question is dealing with the lack of industrial activities in those secondary centres. Most of the manufactured goods are produced elsewhere and are imported from other regions or from abroad. Local resources (like timber or farm products) are often transformed outside the area. The example of Karatina is quite representative with around 4 % of business involved in industrial or workshop activities. Intermediate towns are more transit places than productive ones. There is a real stake of developing industrial activities in secondary towns. This would reinforce the role of this level of the urban hierarchy in its assumed role of regional management.


34The importance of rural-urban linkages for those economies and regions — with high density and intense mobility — is widely visible and intermediate towns are playing a key role in those interactions through their functions of market, services and relays to innovation. The current context questions the traditional intermediation function of this level of the urban hierarchy. New urban governance strategies should take into account the rural side of urban development, with all the connections, coordination and interrelationships between spaces and actors. Secondary towns are active in the catchment of farm products and for the supply of rural areas but they are lacking real and effective tools for local development. The issue is the capacity of local as well as national actors to get involved in the implementation of interspaces cooperation. In that sense, they represent a good observatory of political and territory policies impacts and effects.



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1 CORUS Program 6165 “Mountains and Medium Towns in East Africa. Environmental management, Flows of people and Resources”, 2008-2011, with French Ministry of Foreign Affairs support.

2 Fieldwork conducted in December 2008, July 2009 and July 2011.

3 Author’s translation: « Les territoires de montagne sont aujourd’hui investis par des forces, des enjeux dont les déterminants marginalisent la notion même de ruralité et remettent en cause leur fertilité acquise et entretenue, autour de laquelle s’était construite leur spécificité ».

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 6. Location of studied area
Fichier image/jpeg, 62k
Titre Figure 7. Small and medium sized towns: an interface role in the rural-urban linkages in East-African Mountains
Fichier image/jpeg, 37k
Titre Figure 8. Mbale influence zone in the Mount Elgon area (Uganda)
Fichier image/jpeg, 50k
Titre Figure 9. Mbeya, a redistribution centre for local, national and international products
Fichier image/jpeg, 43k
Titre Photo 1. Retail trade of market gardening products in Karatina market, Kenya (Mainet 2011)
Fichier image/jpeg, 47k
Titre Figure 10. Small and medium sized towns: new intermediation functions in changing context
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Titre Table 3. Registered business permits in Karatina (Kenya)
Crédits Source: Karatina Municipal Council (2011)
Fichier image/jpeg, 109k
Titre Photo 2. Example of new retail shops for farmers (inputs) in Mbale (Mainet 2008)
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k


Dr. and Senior Lecturer in Geography, University Clermont Auvergne (France), CERAMAC Research Centre, Clermont-Ferrand (France),
Her researches are concentrated on small and medium-sized towns and their role in urban-rural relationships. Important scientific interests and lectures are placed on urban geography and development in non-metropolitan areas.

Professor of Geography, University Clermont Auvergne (France), CERAMAC Research Centre, Clermont-Ferrand (France),
He is specialised on issues of small and medium-sized towns and urban planning. His recent works deal with attractiveness indicators and policies in secondary towns as tools of local development.

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