The shifting scenery of the Tana Delta is the first hint of the region’s fragility: green plains punctuated with silvery cashew nut trees melt into areas where only the scrappiest of shrubs emerge from the arid ground.
This area was in the news recently for the wrong reasons after the Orma and the Pokomo reached for each other’s throats over land and other resources, but it is still attracting the attention of investors.
One of those investors is Bedford Biofuels, a Canadian firm which is quickly discovering that the challenges of investing in the volatile delta can be daunting.
The Canadian firm is seeking to produce biofuel by setting up a large-scale plantation of the jatropha plant in the region, explaining that the delta is an ideal place to demonstrate the viability of the plant for biofuel production.
However, it is struggling to overcome a series of roadblocks to its project, including local opposition, environmental concerns, government regulations, and regional instability.
“You wouldn’t believe what we’re up against. The challenges are next to impossible to overcome. It’s one thing after another,” Mr David McClure, CEO of Bedford Biofuels, explained in a phone interview from Canada.
When Bedford arrived in the region in 2008, it firmly believed that it could contribute to the economic development of the region and, in 2009, following public information campaigns and community meetings, signed 45-year leases with six group ranches for 120,000 hectares of land, with plans to plant jatropha on half of the leased property.
But progress has been slow: The biofuel company obtained a licence from the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) in 2010 which restricted it to an initial 10,000-hectare pilot project to evaluate the social and environmental impact of the plantation.
So far, Bedford Biofuels has planted just 19 hectares — a nursery of eight varieties of jatropha — to test which variety might be best suited to the region.
The initiative has also been hampered by regional instability, which came to a head in September when more than 100 people were killed in violent clashes between Pokomo farmers and Orma pastoralists in the delta.
Mr Joel Ruhu, Bedford’s vice-president for human resources, admits that the violence has been a major concern for the company.
“If there are conflicts in the area of operation, you can’t do anything. You literally can’t do anything. So instability causes a lot of delay in us moving forward with the project,” he told DN2 during an interview in Malindi recently.
And, while the clashes were not on land leased by Bedford Biofuels, activists are still worried that the project could upset the region’s delicate environmental and social balance
For centuries, Tana’s occupants have kept the place in harmony with nature.
“When waters ebb, farmers plant rice. The Pokomo have planted rice for centuries. During the floods, pastoralists drive out herds… that’s the traditional way of using the land, keeps the ecosystem functioning,” explains Ms Serah Munguti, communications and advocacy manager at Nature Kenya.
But environmentalists like Ms Munguti say the arrival of foreign companies like Bedford Biofuels, who come to the delta armed with ambitious plans for large-scale, intensive farming, might disrupt the system.
That, according to Ms Munguti, promises to heighten tribal tensions.
“The conflict comes because everybody wants the water. The Tana Delta as it is today is a recipe for disaster,” argues Munguti. “There is already conflict over limited resources. Then you look at all the projects that have been proposed and you can imagine what we are setting ourselves up for.”
Tana residents say Bedford’s presence has not yet been a catalyst for conflict — but its arrival has raised questions about land ownership for the first time between neighbours, fostering a sense of anxiety and insecurity.
Local farmer John Kazungu Katana, who settled in the area over 30 years ago, says leaders from the neighbouring Pokomo village have told him he may have to move off their land.
“They have been giving some stress on the land, that people must move, that they gave the land to other people, so they gave us a few challenges that made us worried,” he explains.
Others are concerned about the impact Bedford’s plantation might have on their livelihoods and surroundings.
“We don’t know the effects of the jatropha project, but we have heard that it makes the land become dry and ineffective for pastoralism,” worries Mr Shukri, a Wardei and local teacher. “It is going to even affect the wild animals that we have in that area, and those animals are very important.”
As for those who agreed to the project following Bedford’s public information meetings, the senior chief of Ngao location, Mr Abraham Masouse, believes the company took advantage of their desperation.
“They are just using our poverty for their own gain,” he says. “If someone is suffering, will they turn down your proposal to get them milk and honey? They will accept it, and that’s what they did.”
But Bedford Biofuels insists that it legitimately gained the approval of local communities by meeting with the boards of the ranches as well as local residents to explain the project.
Mr Ruhu believes that those who are concerned about being displaced are ill-informed; most of the land is uninhabited and only two ranches have squatters, he claims.
“We went through 18 months and didn’t displace one person. We’re the champion of the people... the last thing we want to do is displace people,” adds CEO McClure
The Nema licence also imposes strict guidelines on the project, including the creation of wildlife corridors through which the pastoralists will be allowed to travel with their herds.
But Mr Richard Ndegwa, a principal agricultural officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, is not surprised to hear that there is public opposition despite the need for development in the area.
“When you get land from a local authority, inhabitants ask why are we giving land to a foreign company and yet we have people in the same region who are considered to be landless. It is very, very sensitive. Even if the company and local authorities discuss with local people, if they aren’t in agreement, local investment by a foreign company may not come off,” explains Mr Ndegwa
Bedford also insists its activities will not jeopardise Tana’s sensitive eco-system or inflame competition over resources.
“The recent clashes were not because of limited resources — water and pasture. Everybody is talking about water and pasture. But that is not true. The clashes were politically instigated,” asserts Mr Ruhu.
But the assistant director of agriculture, Mr Clement Muyesu, says the company can be certain of the impact the project might have, given its size.
“Ten thousand hectares is a lot of area by any standards,” remarks Mr Muyesu. “It’s a massive area, especially for a new corporation. It will raise a lot of eyebrows. In terms of expectations, you cannot just say you are just trying with 10,000 hectares... it’s just too much.”
The local community has high expectations, as set by Bedford’s initial promises.
As well as paying rent to ranchers and creating over 3,000 jobs once the project is fully operational, the company also pledges to invest in local infrastructure.
“We have a budget of $3.6 million (about Sh3 billion) for every 10,000 hectares to cater for the needs that the people themselves will come up with, be it a school, a health centre, or water. The projects will be started when the project takes off,” claims Mr Ruhu.
But whether those promises will be realised depends on the success of the project, which is far from assured.
While Nema gave Bedford a licence to proceed, and says that it is “satisfied with the activities of Bedford” and does not have any concerns about its initiative, the Ministry of Energy claims that it has not approved such a large-scale jatropha project.
Ms Faith Odongo, head of the biofuels section at the ministry, says the few jatropha projects undertaken in Kenya have demonstrated that the plant “is not a good candidate for biofuel production in Kenya”.
As a result of a feasibility study by Africa Harvest commissioned by the Ministry of Energy, which found that it would take a company at least 15 years to break even with a jatropha biofuel project, Ms Odongo says the Ministry of Energy has not encouraged any large-scale investment in the sector.
“It does not make sense to recommend such an investment to anybody,” she says.
Others claim that the science behind jatropha’s success is shaky.
Bedford’s website praises the jatropha plant as “a robust and relatively drought-resistant, sustainable biofuel feedstock” whose cultivation “can help build economies of underdeveloped countries”.
The plant has also been hailed in some research as a miracle crop that can even survive on barren land.
But Ms Munguti is sceptical. “They said jatropha would grow in deserts, then they found it can’t. It needs more soil fertility and more water than maize,” she claims.