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Why we are perpetually poor

Monday May 26 2014

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Two months ago, I uprooted my one-acre tea plantation.  A few years back I did the same to my one-acre coffee farm. 

There was no reason to continue spending more money to keep them going when the returns were not matching the costs.  Several other small farms have done the same in central Kenya. 

More than 90 per cent of subsistence farmers suffer the same predicament but have no idea why they are not making money as they used to.

In African farm enterprises, the relationship between farm inputs and outputs is often indistinct.  If there is any shortfall or losses as is often the case, farmers burn out in poverty, but for those who are lucky, families and relatives subsidize the losses through informal cash transfer.

African languages have no equivalent of break-even point or productivity.  Yet these are the most critical concepts that mean success or failure in any enterprise. 

They are sometimes explained in a round-about way that is more confusing than helpful.  The meaning and nuances of such terms dictate that we develop our languages to be more dynamic and responsive to environmental changes.  But there is no one responsible for our languages. 

The lack of proactive measures to educate our rural folks on wealth creation in a language they understand is precipitating new problems that will have far-reaching implications.


The youth no longer want to be associated with agriculture.  Many years of free labour that is not quantified and valued for pay is the major disincentive. 

Africa does not value time, yet it is the most critical aspect of wealth creation.  Even worse, agricultural research remains an elitist exercise.  Research outcomes fail to make an impact on ordinary citizens. 

Take coffee research, for example. It takes an average of 20 years for farmers to adopt new coffee varieties.  Dissemination of research output is not part of the culture, to the extent that most subsistence farms are more ornamental than commercial undertakings.

Depending on what variety of coffee they have, most farmers harvest about two metric tonnes of coffee per hectare, and sometimes this can go down to half a tonne.  With the introduction of the high-yielding Batian variety, farmers can expect in the upwards of five tonnes per hectare by the fourth year, when production is at peak. But for some reason, subsistence farmers with shrinking land sizes do not get such information. 

The new variety from the research labs is disease-resistant, further reducing maintenance costs by as much as 30 per cent. This would obviously bring greater margins to the farmers, and more wealth.

Batian requires much less land about an acre for the farmer to break even whereas the more popular varieties require more than two acres.  The trouble is that more than 70 per cent of farmers have less than two acres for cash crops.


If you talk to farmers as I did, they still talk about Ruiru 11, an Arabica species extract that was released in 1985 by the Kenya Coffee Research Station. While the variety is generally disease-resistant, it produces a lower cup quality than other varieties like Blue Mountain.  The rare Blue Mountain variety is not marketed in any special way to attract more income.  It is sold as just coffee

Jamaica markets their Blue Mountain as a “very rich, smooth, cup of coffee that is exceptionally well-balanced and is generally low in acidity.  Only found in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica”. They describe its origin as “from the Arabica Typica subspecies of coffee".

Many of these trees are descendants from the original trees Governor Lawes imported from Martinique, where coffee was first introduced into the Caribbean.”  The branding indeed fetches them more money than we do.

On Tea, the story is the same.  On their website, The Tea Research Foundation says:

“Currently, Kenya produces and exports over 96 per cent of the tea as black teas. The tea is sold to the world market in bulk, and hence is largely used for blending lower quality teas from other countries. Consequently, it fetches low prices and therefore depressed revenue for tea growers in particular and low foreign exchange for the country in general.”

The question is why we haven’t branded our own product of high quality tea from the great mountains of Africa. 

After a quick chat with tea farmers, none has ever heard of purple tea.  This promising new variety is multi-purpose.


Scientists claim that many more “different products can be produced from its tea leaf and which the scientists say include extracted catechins, anthocyanins, anthocyanidinins (which are used as drug supplements, preservatives and other industrial uses), tea polyphenol extracts for pharmacological and industrial uses, manufacture of instant teas, Ready To Drink (RTD) tea, and other fast moving consumer goods such as health care products, foods and confectionaries.” 

We can effectively create new value-adding industries out of this new variety and more wealth for our farmers, but we are still yet to communicate this information to farmers.

Most of the large tea estates around the country have started to uproot old varieties replacing them with more productive varieties. Whilst rural subsistent tea plantation yields stand at less than 1kg per bush, some of the large-scale farmers with modern varieties have yields exceeding 8 kg per bush. 

It borders on criminal when we know that poor farmers are spending more resources to maintain their crop and earning far less per acre than more informed and rich Kenyans.  This explains why we are perpetually poor in an economy like ours. 

It is not the government that we must blame all the time.  Some of the things that need like value addition, are purely entrepreneurial opportunities that individuals must exploit.  Our collective success is the product of individual successes.  The more knowledge we pass on to others, the better chances that we shall all succeed.


Great knowledge is passed on when comprehension is enabled.  Take for example HIV/AIDS; if it were not for the Tanzanian who came up with its equivalent in Swahili –Ukimwi – we could never have understood the disease and the fight against it would have been very difficult because prior to ukimwi it was simply described as that bad disease. 

Forget the theories flying around that Africans are poor because they are lazy.  Our problem is communication.  A great number of people do not comprehend Swahili news bulletins.  There is a glaring disconnect between what we learn in school for passing exams and the spoken part of the language. 

When President Jomo Kenyatta died, Leonard Mambo Mbotela came up with the word ‘Hayati’, meaning ‘the late’.  Many people who did not understand its meaning but liked the name, named their children Hayati.  That is why you find many Kenyans in their mid-thirties with the name Hayati.

We therefore must deal with our languages while leveraging on technology.  The many universities we have throughout the country must create for example, institutes of Kikuyu, Dholuo, Kamba, Ameru, Nandi, Kipsigis, Bukusu, Kisii, Maasai etc. studies.  

Once we develop digital formats of our languages on a Wikipedia-type platform, we shall have created a reference point from which we can begin to comprehend the world around us. 


With such references, the platforms will become self-financing through advertising.  If we do not do this for us, Google will do it for us. They have attempted translations without success, but one day they will succeed.  Then you will see Africans complaining that even their language is in foreign hands. 

Scandinavian countries are smaller than most of our larger ethnic groups but they have kept their language in spite of having powerful neighbours whose languages are spoken globally.   

There is need too to leverage on technology to continuously communicate research to rural areas.  We have already seen the successes in communicating commodity prices regularly to rural farmers.  County governments must recruit agricultural extension officers to support communication of new innovative ideas to rural folks. 

More importantly, linguistics departments at all universities must begin to expand local languages and bring in the dynamism that will take into consideration the complex concepts that ensure sustainable development.

Muhammad Yunus the Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate in his book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism said:

“Once poverty is gone, we'll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They'll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society - how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.”

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito