farmer on his tractor plowing the field, rural wyoming

By Kenyatta Otieno

Last month, I wrote how building the SGR when Kenyans and their livestock are dying due to lack of food, makes no sense. Even the clashes in our semi-arid regions are more about resources – which translates to sustenance – than politics. Politics comes in because we believe that political power is our only gateway to resources. In this regard, shoot-to-kill is not a quick fix solution; it is not even a solution in the first place.

Let us consider Israel. The Jews who docked in Jaffa in Palestine from 1880s in the Aliyah immigrations from Europe found Arab elites producing Jaffa Orange. The oranges were being exported to Europe from the 1850’s. The Jews, who had grown up in European urban ghettos, experienced a culture shock of rural Palestine; many died of depression. Their only point of contact with the land and assured survival was agriculture. They formed kibbutzes – communist communities of farmers – and went straight into fruit farming.

Agriculture was the symbol of Israeli economy until the 1960s. Tel Aviv even got the nickname, The Big Orange from Jaffa Oranges. After the sixties, Israel started a shift towards industrialisation. They currently lead in production of precision instruments, diamond and military equipment. To this date, despite being a water scarce region and generally a desert, Israel is food sufficient. The country has industrialised from a rural population in the ‘50s and ‘60s to an urban majority, industrialised nation.

Japan has the lowest cultivable land in East Asia at 14%. In the hilly islands that are covered by urban centres and industries, Japan still maximises rice cultivation in the flat valleys and a few kilometres along the shores of its oceans. Rice cultivation was on the basis of landlords and tenants until 1946 when Japan, like some Asian countries, implemented radical reforms.

In China, the communists experimented with several land reforms initiatives but many did not work. 10% of rural Chinese landlords owned 80% of land that tenants tilled. After the civil war in 1956 – between communists and nationalists, which was won by the former – they introduced tax exemption and rebates based on yields. This led to shared machinery, land reclamation, irrigation and credit facilities as well as household ownerships that never existed before, which pushed up yields. The lesson here is that when market forces are left to themselves, agricultural yields stagnate or fall.

Asian Tigers – like Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan – made drastic moves relating to agriculture after the Second World War. These reforms encouraged the rural population to invest their labour to maximise production. These farms were not large commercial farms but small household-owned units. The secret was, and is still true for poor countries, to maximise crop production until the return on extra labour falls to zero.

Small-scale farms can work. The problem is that colonialists discouraged this model in Africa to curb competition. Asian countries, within fifteen years of the Second World War, managed to build surpluses in agricultural production. This led to more savings that were then used to finance industrialisation. The products that came from these industries were designed for these farmers – such as Toyota cars that were made for unpaved roads on small truck chasses.

When a country imports food, it cannot import technology as food eats up foreign exchange reserves.

Rural agriculture populations with good income provide easy market for experimentation for industrial start-ups. This is what spurred East Asian countries to industrialise. Unlike Latin America who ignored agriculture and went into export production, increased population meant increase in food importation. In the end, theirs was a zero-some game.

Consumer nation

At the moment, our much-hyped tech-industry is producing products that serve foreign enterprises. The revolutionary M-Pesa has become more of a Vodacom revelation than a Kenyan product. If we developed our agriculture, and with it a unique market, our service industry would still produce products that are unique to the needs of Kenyan majority. For now we are adjusting our settings to suit products meant for other cultures and markets. This makes us a consumer nation, and that our problem – a country hanging onto the development ideas of other nations.

Jewish immigrants from Europe tinkered with adding value to agricultural produce, which led to industrialisation of the young state. In Kenya, we still export our coffee as berries yet, world over, our coffee is known to have a distinct taste. Just look at the success of Java House restaurants as coffee shops to understand why cartels have been throwing our success down the drain for three pieces of silver. We have made strides in the tea sector but we let multinationals run the show from our shores.

To develop, we must return to the basics of agriculture. This will force us to revive some crops like cotton and sisal, which we left to die because of cheap imports. The imports bring wealth to a few people but then leave a majority of Kenyans wallowing in poverty. We have learned from East Asia states that you do not leave farmers at the mercy of market forces and cartels and still hope or expect to develop.

On a recent trip to Mau Narok, I saw a mortuary at Egerton University in Njoro. It got me thinking. I know we need doctors, but why should a university, famed for producing agricultural experts from certificate to post-graduate level, want to go into human medicine? Veterinary Medicine would be the appropriate course to train. The answer is our obsession with quick cash. Egerton fell for the lucrative parallel program students that medicine attracts as the highest priced course in Kenya. This means that the university will spread itself thin and miss the mark. I hope CS for Education Dr Matiang’i will look into this problem in his reform agenda.

Agriculture will put food on the table and build capacity for communities to take up extra challenges. A good example is the Githunguri Dairy Cooperative Society-owned Fresha Dairies. When old KCC went down, Githunguri farmers came together and set up a milk processing plant. Today, when they hold hands with New KCC, they stand between Brookside Dairies and monopoly in the dairy sector in Kenya. Soon, they will venture into or assist their members to get into other related industries, like animal feeds production.
Agriculture cannot survive without government hedging. Our agricultural industry has not done well because the government has been unable to cushion farmers. There is no way local farmers can compete with subsidised produce from other countries. The knee jerk reaction of writing off debts will not hack it – that is simply for political expediency.

There must be systematic and strategic interventions to make sure that we develop our basic agricultural practices and subsequent value addition ventures. Two areas to begin with are the sugar and meat industries. Small private sugar factories are surviving where big public owned industries are struggling. It is not about the size of the plots of land on sugarcane; it is about what happens after the cane is cut. Over 50% of Kenya suits meats production, yet the Kenya Meat Commission has been coughing since it was revamped. Every time there is drought, we hear the same story: livestock is dying.

We have neglected agriculture under the illusion that we can develop into middle-income economy with an urban population without depending on agriculture. We are wrong. If there is an area that needs urgent intervention, it is agriculture. The moment we become food secure and we producing surplus for export is the day we will have cracked the brief. This will also enable us to bridge the ever-widening inequality gap.

We can build the SGR and a second port and another dry port, but if we don’t prepare our people to exploit this infrastructure, we will end up with a small minority of filthy rich and a majority filthy poor of consumers. We have to raise the economic capacity of majority of Kenyans and agriculture is the place to begin with. Let us go back to basics.

Writer is a practising geologist and hydrologist; @stuttistician