Kenya's failed agrarian revolution

Posted on July, 12, 2019 at 10:41 am

Columnists  - The Star

There are many fine roads in Kenya that did not exist in the colonial era. Likewise, there is now a brand-new railway which had not even been considered at the time we got independence.

And there are many TV stations, radio stations, hospitals, schools, housing estates and universities which were not on anyone’s radar back in 1963. So, it would appear that some progress has been made in the 50-plus years since Kenya became an independent country.

However, there is one thing which has hardly changed: the manner in which the great majority of our people make a living. At Independence, Kenya had an agrarian economy. And to a large extent Kenya is still an agrarian economy.

The major difference is that millions of Kenyans are now smallholder farmers, working their own small plots of land with their families. Whereas in the early 1960s many such people would have been farmhands on large-scale plantations owned by “white settlers” as they were then known.

Looking back on those early and optimistic years, it seems obvious that the indigenous Kenyans of those days took it for granted that land ownership had a direct causal link to some degree of prosperity. They had no way of knowing that given the direction in which the global economy was moving, small-scale agriculture would soon be a doomed enterprise.

For we now live in a world in which the huge subsidies offered to farmers in the rich nations regularly lead to an overproduction of most staple foods. And thus, for example, a Kenyan maize farmer now finds that their chances of being able to feed, clothe and educate their children, depend entirely on their government effectively limiting the imports of much cheaper maize sourced from global markets.

Indeed “disposal of agricultural surplus” is a major and contentious item on the high-level meetings of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

You can get some idea of what our dairy farmers are up against, if they should seek to make any substantial exports of milk products, by the revelations contained in this European Union briefing of December 2018 titled, 'The EU dairy sector: Main features, challenges and prospects':

“The 2014 to 2016 crisis, during which raw milk prices dropped dramatically …triggered a reaction by the Commission based on public intervention-buying, private storage and a range of exceptional measures. Two aid packages were adopted, including incentives for farmers to reduce production.”

Just in case you missed the key line there, it says that EU dairy farmers were being given financial incentives “to reduce production”. Broadly speaking, entrenched official subsidies ensure that European dairy farmers are guaranteed a decent income, irrespective of the fluctuations in global prices for milk products.

But of course, it is not only Kenyan smallholder farmers who find themselves crushed by the relentless march of globalised agriculture, or the overproduction of formerly valuable farm produce.

Consider this recent report in the Washington Post:

“Guatemala is now the single largest source of migrants attempting to enter the United States — more than 211,000 were apprehended at the Southwest border in the eight months from October to May…in western Guatemala, one of the biggest factors in that surge is the falling price of coffee…Since 2017, most farmers have been operating at a loss…A staggering number of those farmers have decided to migrate.”

Guatemala has a population of 17.5 million.

So proportionately, the Kenyan equivalent of this human tragedy in Guatemala, would be a news report that reads something like this:

“…more than 500,000 Kenyan refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean to illegally enter into Western Europe, were apprehended in Libya in the eight months from October to May…the biggest factor is the steep fall in prices paid to farmers who grow coffee, tea, maize, and sugarcane”

That is the kind of disaster which awaits us, if our elected leaders cannot find a solution to the looming agricultural apocalypse in Kenya.

Having failed to industrialise, what we needed most, all these years since Independence, was some kind of agrarian revolution which would make small-scale farming viable.

But thus far nobody has been able to figure out how that can be achieved.


Source: The Star