Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo spoke to the Star about his experience and track record as county boss.

You have been a governor for three years now, what has been your experience? 

Being a governor is a very difficult job. Sometimes I regret why I became a governor. The pressure is too much and expectations from voters very high. The pressure is so intense that you cannot have time for your family. When you get home in the evening, you’re so tired that you don’t want to talk to anybody. The worst thing is the mobile phone. People will keep calling and you can’t switch it off because you never know when an emergency will occur. You don’t know whether the President can call you. And if you put it off, the voters will see you as avoiding them and there will be a backlash.

As the governor you are in charge of billions, isn’t it a nice feeling? 

The notion among the people is that you control billions and you have the means to do all they want. Everything is loaded on you. Even when other people make mistakes, it’s the governor who is blamed as a thief. We need a law to make government officers take responsibility for their actions.

What would you say is the worst moment you have had as a governor?

My worst moment was in January this year when MCAs came up with a motion to impeach me. Our relationship had been good and I couldn’t understand why they brought it up. I later found out that one of my prospective competitors was sponsoring them. He was worried that at the rate I was moving with development projects, it would not be easy to dislodge me in 2022. I had to work to make sure that the motion did not go through. I used my experience to mollify them and they withdrew the motion.

What is your best moment as a governor?

The best moment, I would say, was the day of my installation as governor. I had a lot of expectations and was ready to move. I wanted to occupy the office like yesterday. But when I got into office I encountered a big challenge. In July 2018, I declined MCAs’ demand that money be budgeted for wards. They ganged up and vilified me everywhere. The ward reps projected me as a very bad person with no conscience. I finally convinced them that I was their governor and there was a need for us to work together. I can tell you that 2018-19 is the year I performed best as a governor.

What other challenges  have you faced? 

The biggest challenge was lack of an organised government system.  As you remember, I found a vehicle without fuel. The culture here was like you’re running a matatu or a jua kali business despite the fact that a government must be organised and follow regulations. Working with people who have a culture of laxity becomes a big problem and is still the biggest problem I face today. I have staff who are permanent and pensionable but do not have the culture of work.

What is their culture? 

It is a culture of what can I get from the system rather than how can I improve the system? This culture was built in such a way that even the people outside believe that they should get something from you. Most of the staff were not suited for the jobs they were given.

What is your relationship with the county assembly?

When I came in, I had a bumpy relationship with the MCAs because they wanted money to be sent to wards so they were able to control processes there. I rejected that demand and it gave me a hard time with them. I thank God because we finally closed ranks and started serving the people as a team and we can see the results.

What is the county wage bill like?

We inherited more than 3,500 staff yet the ideal establishment for the county on the higher side is 2,000 workers. The Transition Authority recommended that we should have 1,400 staff. It means that most of the money we receive is used on salaries and pending bills.

Your government has faced audit queries, what’s your take? 

We have so many audit queries because of lack of qualified staff in critical departments. Those in office believed in using shortcuts. Right now, we are struggling to correct the mess by carrying out an audit to rid the payroll of ghost employees and then redeploy the genuine staff.

Have you been affected by late release of funds by Treasury? 

The erratic disbursement of funds from the National Treasury has slowed operations and development in the county. As I sit here, we have not received funds for the first quarter of this financial year yet it’s ending. We have our budgets but we can not do anything because we are given money for salaries and some essential operations only.

How are you handling pending bills? 

I inherited pending bills of Sh1.8 billion. When the President directed that all pending bills be paid, I refused because I felt there was no value for the money. Auditors came in and audited the bills and sanctioned payment. Last year, we paid Sh500 million and we’re going to pay another Sh600 million and this is money that was meant for development. Then again with the new formula Vihiga is going to lose Sh361 million. We are only given money for salaries and little operations. What we have cannot do anything. I don’t know what type of auditing they did because most of the bills they recommended that we pay were questionable and there was no value for money. I had refused to pay but that couldn’t work because the Treasury tied release of our funds on the payment and therefore I had to agree with the Treasury on a payment schedule.

Health is one of the fully devolved functions. What is the state of health services in the county?

When I took office, health services in Vihiga were in shambles and the first thing was to fix the sector since it’s critical. There were no drugs in hospitals, which were in a sorry state. The Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) had stopped supplying drugs because of a Sh75 million debt. I had to engage the agency to agree on how to pay the debt before they resumed supplies to us. There was no money and I had to do a supplementary budget to raise funds to renovate the referral hospital, which is the hub of medical services in the county, and fix the medical equipment supplied by the national government which were lying idle years after they were supplied.

What have you achieved in the health sector? 

In the last three years, we have made positive strides in health as a county. We have installed a CT scan, built an amenity ward where people who want to have specialised treatment can seek services, installed dental equipment in all the five subcounties, established an oncology clinic where cancer can be tested and a cardiac clinic. A hospital plaza is ongoing but stalled when we started paying pending bills. The county has recruited health workers and posted them to facilities. We have increased the number of medical staff from the 800 we inherited to 1, 400 currently and have established a blood bank that will serve not only Vihiga but other Western counties.

What about Ottichilocare? 

When I came in, the maternal indicators were poor and I startedOttichilocare, an idea I borrowed from Kakamega county where a maternal programme dubbed Oparanya was doing very well. The programme is meant to encourage pregnant women to attend antenatal and postnatal clinics and deliver in facilities to improve child survival rates. Previously, we had 627 deaths per 100,000 births in the county which we have reduced to 120 per 100,000 births.

You also asked fathers to play a bigger role in maternal care? 

Ottichilocare was linked with another project, Baba Anzilisha funded by Nutrition International, which involved the fathers in maternal healthcare because they are decision-makers. This created an opportunity for engagement of the Community Health Volunteers to help in tracking the expectant mothers and enroll them. Mothers receive Sh1,000 stipend on visitation for their transport and purchase of required foods like fruits.

What is the food security situation in Vihiga?

My administration has embarked on programmes aimed at transforming agriculture from subsistence farming to agribusiness because of the growing population that puts more pressure on the shrinking land sizes. Since I became governor, Vihiga is now self-sufficient in terms of food. There’s no hunger in Vihiga even during this Covid-19 period. When I took office, I started by identifying value chains that would firm up the agribusiness model. They include dairy, poultry, fish, indigenous vegetables and banana farming, all of which have since got funding through the World Bank under the NARIC project.

What steps have you taken to improve the dairy industry?

In 2018-19, we gave farmers 75 dairy animals and in 2019-20 we have given another 75 cows. Our ultimate goal is to give up to 1,000 milk cows to farmers who will act as contact persons. We are working with the Vihiga Dairy Cooperative Society, which we have equipped with generators and motorcycles to collect the milk they are processing into yoghurt. We have identified a donor from Germany who is working with the cooperative to help us procure machines by end of the year. We can then package the milk and expand the value addition chain in the sector. We have Sh130 million to expand the dairy value chain in the next four years

Any hope for fish and poultry farming?

I had started the Mwitoko fish farm when I was MP but the former regime abandoned it. When I came in as governor, I resuscitated it. We have now spent Sh32 million for building a hatchery, which produces fingerlings for about 1,200 farmers. As a county, we are now able to supply fingerlings to the entire Western region. We want to privatise it to make it sustainable so that the county government does the training as the production is handled by investors in a semi-autonomous way. We have given out one million chicks to farmer groups interested in poultry farming.

You have been talking of boosting indigenous vegetable farming, what have you done?

Farmers interested in production of indigenous vegetables were supplied with certified seeds and given technical assistance and thereafter linked with the Ministry of Social Services. To support these initiatives under the NARIC projects, we’re going to build a Sh80 million market as a hub for traditional vegetables. Construction of a cold room at Walodeya to assist vegetable farmers preserve their produce and reduce post-harvest losses is ongoing. We are also putting up another cold room at Esibuye in Luanda subcounty.

Are tea, coffee and avocado farming being factored in?

We have given out 50,000 tea seedlings and another 50,000 coffee seedlings to selected farmers in the last three years.  We’re working in partnership with Mudete tea factory which is operating under capacity. We have procured a coffee machine for farmers in Hamisi to enable them process their coffee with ease. We are also promoting avocado farming. To increase food production, we decided to give vulnerable farmers subsidised farm inputs like fertiliser and certified seeds. In 2018-19 we supplied 28,000 farmers and in 2019-20 we gave to 32,000 farmers inputs. We have entered into a partnership with the One Acre Fund so that those who miss out on the county government subsidies can access them from the fund.  These programmes have reduced the cost of a 90kg bag of maize from Sh4,000 to Sh2,000.

Unemployment remains a major challenge in the country. What is your administration doing to solve the problem in your county?       

We established the trade and enterprise fund and sensitised the youth on the importance of taking loans and entering into business to create income and lower the level of unemployment. Apart from the Kazi Mtaani programme by the national government, we have come up with a programme where youths and women will maintain roads throughout the year instead of paying contractors. We are going to spend Sh50 million this year on youth empowerment. I have been pushing for the granite factory since I was an MP. We have given 10 acres for the factory as requested by the national government and the feasibility study was done last year and revealed granite has huge potential. The government has advertised an international tender and once an investor is identified, the factory is going to be a game-changer. I believe once the factory is established the levels of unemployment will ease and boost the economy.

What can you say is the state of education in your county?

I am passionate about education because an educated community is a community that can fend for itself and find solutions to their problems. All over the world, any country that has developed did so not because they had gold or diamond but because it has an educated human capacity. We have to build capacity from the ECDE because this is what will determine whether the child is successful or not.

When I took office as governor, ECDE centres were still being run like a charities where the teachers were hardly paid. The previous government had only built eight centres. In 2018-19, we built 75 and hired and deployed teachers. We have increased the pay from Sh5,000 to Sh10,000 for those with certificates and from Sh 7,000 to Sh15,000 for those with a diploma and retrained the tutors to align them to the CBC, besides providing adequate learning materials. This year we’re employing 800 teachers on permanent and pensionable terms.

What about vocational training?

All the 27 vocational training colleges were not registered. In 2018-19, we registered 27 and in 2019-20 we have registered four. When we came in, the enrollment in the county was 1,700 and the number has increased to 5,700. We have introduced specialisation in the TVETs where clusters have been created to deal with specific fields. Some of the instructors had not been paid salaries for over two years. We are hiring 130 instructors and decided to do capitation where any child joining the centres receives bursaries. We have set aside Sh1 million for every ward. We have also done away with the requirements for uniform as long as those attending are decently dressed.