Back to latest

Makueni: the small county leading action on open procurement in Kenya

Kenya’s government has yet to follow through on its commitments to fully implement open procurement in East Africa’s richest country. But a small county in the southeast of the country is leading reform and inspiring its neighbors as early results of open contracting reforms show increased competition and suggest greater efficiency, giving stakeholders the hope that implementing transparent, data-driven public procurement reforms is possible. 

Soon after Kenya enforced an early lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, a huge corruption scandal engulfed the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (KEMSA), the Kenyan agency tasked with sourcing medical equipment to protect frontline workers from the virus. 

Government officials at KEMSA reportedly pilfered $400 million meant for medical equipment, according to a September 2020 investigation by Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. That’s roughly 0.5% of Kenya’s GDP. 

Such rampant corruption remains endemic in procurement in Kenya. “Offices that are established by the laws on public procurement repeatedly violate the laws that have created them and thereby generate low public trust in the public procurement processes resulting in the multiplication of costs on purchases, in addition to creating new costs through adverse court action against the public sector,” argues an October 2020 study by Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs. More than 40 civil society organizations led by TI Kenya have expressed “great concern” over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 resources

Reforms have been enacted by Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration, such as an executive order in 2018 which ordered all Kenyan public institutions to publish tenders and manage them through a centralized electronic platform. Despite these repeated pledges to force procurement agencies to publish data and open up their public spending procedures to scrutiny, execution has been slow and allegations of malpractice remain widespread. 

Away from the national spotlight, local media have lauded the Government of Makueni County, located in the southeastern Kenyan region with a population of approximately one million, for its recently implemented open contracting platform. Initial results suggest those reforms have led to savings and greater efficiency, according to a review of Makueni’s data conducted by Open Contracting Partnership, and could serve as a model on a national level. 

Reforming Makueni’s public procurement 

Reforms in Makueni were kicked off by Governor Kivutha Kibwana. He’s not unfamiliar with the challenges of procurement having faced contentious allegations over past contracts.  

Kibwana has since become a pioneer in the field of Kenyan procurement, becoming the first governor in Kenya to implement an open data procurement platform. 

“Thanks to this new approach, anyone can see what the County government is buying and who got the contract. This means real transparency in fighting corruption.”

Governor Kivutha Kibwana

To do so, Makueni County looked outside for support and started working in partnership with Development Gateway in 2018. Makueni committed to adopting the open contracting model to eradicate corruption in the use of public funds by implementing a sustainable approach for effective public procurement through open data and public disclosure of tenders and public contracts. As part of a project supported by Dutch NGO Hivos and US-based Hewlett Foundation, Development Gateway led on gathering the needs from the government, civil society and the private sector, developing the system through ongoing collaboration with the government and other stakeholders, and providing training to ensure the government could continue to manage it.

In December 2019, Makueni County launched its open contracting portal at with detailed public information about each step along the tender and award procurement process during an event celebrating the International Anti-Corruption Day. Government users were also able to access a Corruption Risk Dashboard, a tool that flags tenders and awards based on specific metrics that may indicate corruption. 

“We are opening up government to ensure that we take every measure to mitigate corruption, ensure that we are using public funds to the best value for money, to support more competition for businesses especially Small and Micro-Enterprises (SMEs), and also support youth, women and persons with disability-owned businesses to have better chances of doing business with government,” Makueni’s government stated on why it embraced open contracting. 

The move to make procurement more transparent is part of a broader civic participation project in Makueni – already in 2015 the county had implemented a civic education drive, including Project Management Committees for each project selected or elected at a public forum to monitor its implementation.

Early results show public procurement reform is possible

One year later, initial numbers suggest the procurement reforms have improved competition, efficiency and transparency. A review of procurement data published by the Makueni County authorities in 2019 and 2020 conducted by Open Contracting Partnership found that the number of public procurement processes published had nearly tripled from 160 to 461 year-on-year. 67% of the 419 public contracts awarded in 2020 were for public works. In September, Kibwana said the reforms had already saved 30 million shillings (approximately 273,800 USD) in road construction. By December, savings increased to 45 million shillings (407,000 USD) over planned spending according to Open Contracting Partnership’s analysis of 129 minor and major road construction projects by the Roads, Transport, Energy and Public Works agency. 

Other patterns in the data also suggest the reforms have had positive impacts on competition. In 2019 the supplier with the highest value concentrated 9% of the contract value, while in 2020 the percentage shrunk to 3.6%, indicating an increase in supplier diversification. The average number of bidders increased from 3 to 3.8 from 2019 to 2020 for open procedures. While in some sectors, like road construction, the number of suppliers remained roughly the same year-on-year proportionally, in others, like water supply, more suppliers were awarded contracts in 2020.

While the implementation of the open contracting platform posed its own challenges, the issue of ensuring all users in procurement departments  believed in the project was in fact the biggest challenge. “The concept and value of open data was not understood initially,” says Charlene Migwe-Kagume of Development Gateway who developed the open contracting portal. “We had to get buy-in on why it was a good idea to publish the data.”

One source close to the Makueni government said the reforms enable senior management in the government to “take a bird’s eye view” of public spending and respond faster to real time data to make decisions. 

The data has also allowed civil society organizations to engage in more effective monitoring. Kenyan civic education advocacy group URAIA used Makueni’s data to identify 34 delayed projects and request investigations by the government. 

Knock-on effect of local reforms

On a local level, Makueni County’s success is however radiating to neighboring counties, especially important given increased subnational autonomy resulting from the recent devolution agenda. “There is a lot of discussion on corruption and transparency in Kenya at the moment and data seems to be coming up in the conversation.” says Migwe-Kagume. She says at least four other Kenyan counties have been in touch with Development Gateway about undertaking similar open data reforms.

Taryn Davis, a senior project advisor with Development Gateway, says her organization, that advocates for usage of open data in policy making, is increasingly working with sub-national level authorities as they are often more flexible and dynamic in terms of implementing procurement reforms. This follows a trend in the open contacting and open government movements more broadly, as reforms at sub-national or local level are also often more visible with a direct effect on citizens’ lives.

In December 2020, Makueni County officially joined the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from national and sub-national governments to promote open government, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. 

Among its OGP commitments, Makueni has pledged to strengthen monitoring and evaluation as the next phase in its open contracting reforms. Internal reviews of data and data monitoring so far have been done on an ad-hoc basis, with independent external organizations like URAIA and Open Contracting Partnership conducting regular reviews. More than 100 people have already signed up for email updates on projects (e.g. status updates on monitoring of a project), ensuring a hub of citizen monitors is in development. SMS alerts are also available. 

Makueni has also committed to disclose information on company ownership with a view to identifying corruption and exposing beneficial ownership. The county will also publish audits and performance service reports as part of its responsibilities. 

While Makueni’s reforms are inspiring other local actors, the open contracting approach and tools such as the corruption risk dashboard built for Makueni – that combines high-powered analytics with global research to identify potential cases of corruption in procurement – could provide a template for national agencies like KEMSA to clean up corruption. 

With news stories of fraud, collusion and corruption hitting the headlines – Makueni County’s progress gives hope that implementing transparent, data-driven public procurement reforms is possible.

The story was written by Alex Macbeth, a freelance writer, editor and publisher based in Italy. 

Related Stories