It is a common feature to see signage of plots for sale along our highways and roads with a cache that there are only a few remaining. Almost all morning radio shows have dedicated some minutes to advertising the new kid on the block with good plot offerings.
Not long ago, individuals were cheated into buying plots alleged to have installed greenhouses and promised high returns from growing tomatoes and capsicum. But why would these well-established companies with high financial capabilities not undertake such ventures on their own?
It should not escape the attention of agriculture sector stakeholders that this approach was well received by urbanites as much as the outcome was not good. Initially, the messaging was a preserve of major towns, but the proliferation has been extended to the smaller ones in well-known rural areas.
In some counties, cultural practices on inheritance have reduced land ownership to less than a quarter of an acre, which cannot be economically viable from an agricultural point of view. Consequently, the urge by every adult Kenyan to have a title deed has seen large family land subdivided into small parcels that are snapped up on a promise of value appreciation.
The right to own land in Kenya is constitutional and neither is it a crime to aspire to increase your portfolio as long as it is acquired by just means. Anecdotes abound of brokers who have become instant millionaires out of buying large parcels of land and subdividing them into plots for resale at exorbitantly high prices.
The legality of their trade is never in question because it’s dictated by forces of supply and demand. Save for a few rogue ones, the land sector is just operating on the realms and needs of the current generation.
It’s as if nothing can suppress the sheer will to own plots. For instance, Kiambu County’s landscape has been changing from coffee farms to apartments in recent years because of a burgeoning urban population that needs housing.
But there needs to be a rethink of how to embrace urbanisation with agriculture in mind. We should ask ourselves why a land owner is getting a high return on investment from real estate in comparison to farming. Why are our policies and approaches to farming failing, making our farmers abandon this sector in droves?
Most of our productive population is moving towards urban areas and we cannot keep on relying on our ageing parents in the rural countryside to produce 80 per cent of food that is consumed in towns.
In urban areas, most buildings are storeyed but, perhaps, we should be introspecting why they cannot be developed with subsistence household farming in mind. For instance, it will be prudent for landlords to design their units with spaces for a kitchen garden, which will allow tenants to grow vegetables in gunny bags and reduce expenditure on groceries.
Besides, with erosion of cultural inclinations, it’s high time we embraced clustered settlements in the wave of increasing population.
By subdividing agricultural land into small pieces for food production, farmers cannot boast of a strong commercial motive because they remain uninfluenced by changes in market forces. In the long run, they have difficulties in using improved practices and technology, hence low marketable surplus as their production is only sufficient to meet domestic needs.
It’s worrying that seed firms in Kenya have started moving to Tanzania and South Africa because of entrenched land subdivision. The Seed Trade Association of Kenya has raised the alarm over the negative impact of this on production of planting materials, and, ultimately, food output.
Agriculture and land sector stakeholders should come up with initiatives to address this problem and avoid beautiful failure. We risk becoming a net food importer of produce that we could have grown with ease.
Based on prevailing realities, players in the sector should make small-scale farmers adapt good farming practices instead of focusing on relatively unaffected regions. After all, we have success stories of farmers who have established dairy farms with a herd of 100 cows on half an acre of land.
Mr Onyango is an agricultural economist. [email protected]