Why rescuing small farms is good for everyone

Saturday November 1 2014

Nakuru Governor Kinuthia Mbugua during a past interview. The Nakuru County government was recently forced to withdraw its order stopping subdivision of farming land below five acres in Naivasha after angry residents opposed it. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH |

Nakuru Governor Kinuthia Mbugua during a past interview. The Nakuru County government was recently forced to withdraw its order stopping subdivision of farming land below five acres in Naivasha after angry residents opposed it. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH |  NATION

By OTIENO OTIENO
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The Nakuru County government was recently forced to withdraw its order stopping subdivision of farming land below five acres in Naivasha after angry residents opposed it.

Yet there is no doubt that the county agricultural authorities had good intentions. Shrinking land sizes in Kenya’s agriculturally rich areas have long been associated with declining farm productivity and food insecurity in the country.

The Nakuru case highlights the kind of challenge the other 46 counties have trying to spur food production, with the population pressure on land increasing and the cultural practice of dividing the family possessions among the sons still rampant.

Worse, a pessimistic view of small-scale farming as a solution to the global food problems that has taken root in the international development funding circles since the 2008 price hikes could starve the sector of key resources.

The problems do not end there for the smallholder. A new study shows that the smallholder has been losing more and more of his or her land to middle class people since the 1990s.

The study by Michigan State University and the Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) shows that this emerging class of landowners – mostly urban professionals and business people who own between five and 100 hectares – now control more land than the large-scale farmers in Kenya.

It is tempting to see the increasing appetite for land among the middle class folk as a good thing considering their common romantic portrayal as the engine of the economy in most market-driven surveys.

Not so fast. Large tracts of such land are basically idle, with their owners speculating a windfall in future in light of the skyrocketing land prices in many parts of the country.

The Michigan State University/KLA study actually noted that the harvest from farms owned by absentee farmers – who lived and worked in urban areas, and occasionally barked orders to workers and relatives on the phone – was underwhelming.

Many of the middle class land owners were also found to lack the practical education required to undertake a successful farming business, the kind his or her smallholder neighbour has acquired from years of beating or manipulating the elements, bacteria, insects, birds and village thieves.

The findings of this study suggest that even if the medium-scale farms were to increase their production dramatically it would still not be enough to solve our food problems with 70 per cent of the arable land still in the hands of the smallholder anyway.

Dr Milu Muyanga of Michigan State University, one of the researchers on the study, says there is more to worry about any policy that might seek to sideline the smallholder than food.

It would increase poverty in rural communities, trigger further exodus to towns and cities, widen the gap between the rich and the poor and expose the country to social instability.

Otieno Otieno is chief sub-editor, Business Daily. [email protected] @otienootieno