KANYINGA: Agriculture can help uproot poverty - Daily Nation

Agriculture can help uproot poverty if watered with apt policies, politics

Saturday April 22 2017

Workers at Muthera Farm in Mau Narok, Nakuru. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Workers at Muthera Farm in Mau Narok, Nakuru. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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All aspects of our politics have consequences on development.

The politics we practice and the policies we pursue after every five years generally prevent the country from taking off in terms of development. But Kenya is not alone in this.

Let us consider the following. China is today in Africa building roads and developing the countryside. Brazil is selling many things including aircraft to Africa and the rest of the world. In the 1960s, poor Africa was in the same circumstances as China and Brazil.

But Africa lost this initiative to develop almost immediately after many countries got independence.

Many countries including Kenya were richer on average than many in Southeast Asia. But many in Southeast Asia overtook African countries in the 1980s and have completely outpaced them.

In terms of development, Kenya remains dwarfed by its peers of the 1960s. Many people identify corruption and bad governance as the main reason for this.


But alas, some countries such as Indonesia were more corrupt and badly governed than Kenya. Indonesia, in particular, out-did countries such as Kenya and Nigeria in terms of graft and bad governance yet overtook both in terms of development.

Explanations for this can only be found in the policies and politics the different countries pursued.

Of course, political leadership mattered most especially in terms of commitment to lift a big mass of people from poverty.

In Indonesia, the government devoted all its attention to agriculture so as to improve food production by small-holders.

They committed a lot of money to research on food crops. They focused on rural infrastructure and targeted only small-holders.

The government subsidised the farmers by giving fertiliser and high-yield seed varieties, among other things. This was a labour intensive agriculture targeting millions of rural peasants.


To ensure the crops got to the markets with ease, the government invested in rural access roads. The government also built schools, health facilities and other basic services.
What did Kenya do? The government also invested in agriculture. But the government invested in the wrong kind of agriculture. It supported the wrong farmers and the wrong places.

The government policy focused on elite farmers, many of them living in Nairobi.

These “telephone farmers” got subsidies from the government to farm. The government believed these were agricultural entrepreneurs. But these were quarks interested in just ‘thinking big’. They pretended to take the place of the colonial settlers. They failed painfully.

The government did not support the masses of ordinary peasants. These are the ones who needed the most attention. They were neglected so badly that all they could do was subsistence farming.
Loud-mouthed leaders


This remains the practise to-date. Agricultural policies have had a focus on large-scale farmers with little attention to peasant farmers and livestock keepers.

Before devolution of agricultural services in early 2013, national agricultural policy priorities favoured large-scale elite farmers. And because they have a big voice, any time they complained, the government would back them. Also, some political leaders are part of this group of “telephone farmers.”

Our elite farmers comprise leaders and senior bureaucrats who think land is everything. But they do not look back to the 1960s and 1970s to see how others like them failed the country.

They get favours not because they practise good agriculture but because they have loud voices and they control bags of votes. Some are leaders in vote-rich agricultural areas.

Some of this has changed with devolution. At the beginning of 2013, the county governments backed rural peasants and small holders in general.


The devolved units were more focused on improving agricultural production and livestock development. From 2013 to 2015 one could say there was something serious going on.

Some of the county governments revived agricultural extension services. They subsidised fertilisers and other inputs in order to improve agricultural production.

All this lost attention the moment the governors realised that elections were around the corner. Senators did not make it easy for them. Senators also showed interest in the governors’ seat.

This increased attention on electoral politics changed the course of things in many counties. The governors started putting money on things that voters can see — roads, schools and dispensaries.

A policy shift emerged suddenly because of the fear of losing their seats. The counties therefore are not any different to what used to happen at the national level. Politics would lead to change of course simply because of elections.


Many countries that have pulled out of poverty in the recent past have one thing in common. They all have used agriculture to uplift the masses.

They invested heavily in research in agriculture as well as irrigation to move away from rain-fed agriculture.

Also, the support of governments in these countries targeted large numbers of farmers so as to improve their household incomes.

Rural infrastructure such as roads were improved to promote access to markets and to move goods and services from one corner to another.

The governments improved basic facilities to provide better access to all.

These governments in countries that have lifted many people from poverty in the recent past did not bother to support elite farmers.


Their political leadership was strongly committed to the vision of developing the rural areas and the poor.

Their leadership was convinced that elite farmers would take care of themselves provided the policy and regulatory framework were supportive.

These governments embarked only on pro-poor and rural focused policies and strategies. They recognised that development is first an issue of numbers reached by policy interventions.

They adopted policies that enabled them to reach the largest numbers of people in a positive manner with simple interventions such as extension services.

They were also focused on the right priorities. Their priority was to get people out of poverty by enabling them to be food secure first.

These efforts started to bring forth new changes. Once out of poverty, farmers would engage in farming as business.

They would produce for consumption and for sale. Much later they started adding value to their produce.

These efforts had the consequence of creating wealth among the poor. This brought prosperity to the rest of the society.

But politics and the choices we make distort development in many ways. First our policies do not give significant attention to agriculture and rural areas yet over 70 per cent of the population depends on agriculture and lives in rural areas.

Electoral issues are essentially about who gets to office rather than what one should do while in office.

Prof. Karuti Kanyinga teaches at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; [email protected]