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The Colonial Planning of Airports in Nairobi

Changes to airport names may conceal stretches of their past. Thus, the colonial roots of two of Nairobi’s three airports are opaque. Each of the three has taken a turn as the prime international gateway to Kenya. During the 1930s, Wilson Airport, to the southwest of Nairobi, was the only city airport. It was set up by Kenyans for local flying – still in its infancy – in the colony. It became a stopping place on the new air route operated by Imperial Airways (predecessor of British Airways) across Africa. During World War II, a second, bigger airport was developed east of the city centre on vacant land at Eastleigh. The airport was built initially as a colonial air force outpost, but was soon shared by civilian airliners. In the 1950s, a third and even bigger site was developed at Embakasi, further out from and southeast of Nairobi city centre. After independence from Britain in 1963, this airport was developed into the current Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Research offers a glimpse of how colonial economic and political considerations affected airport provision. As the colonial power, Britain would have been expected to plan airports easily to suit its needs. But after World War II, Britain – and Kenya – faced financial austerity. New purposes are often found for old airports, including using them for general aviation, such as serving recreational flying, and local business and tourist air charter. This happened at Wilson Airport in Nairobi. The airport at Eastleigh reverted to a military facility – now Moi Airbase – having lost its commercial aviation role in the 1950s.