American mechanization on the Dominion Farm’s rice fields. Notice the small scale farms on the hill in the distance.

There are so many cases of grand agricultural schemes in East Africa that promised the moon, but ended in collapse that I can only cover two in this Report from Kenya – Dominion Farm and the Galana Kulalu Irrigation Scheme.

Dominion Farm was started in 2002 by an American capitalist named Calvin Burgess. His fortune was made in real estate as he leases eleven properties he has developed to the US Federal Government. He also is reported to own some private prisons. He leased 17,050 acres in Yala swamp in western Kenya near Lake Victoria to grow rice, tilapia fish, and later sugar cane. You can read about this endeavor at Dominion Group of Companies at https://www.domgp.com/agriculture.html. Here is a quote from that webpage, “At full production, the farm will help enable this country to reduce dependence on imported food, will serve as a demonstration of productive farming practices and will return a profit to Dominion. The company is committed to the enrichment of the local population through decent employment, out-grower contracting and the support of schools, clinics and emerging community initiatives.” His method was pure American mechanized irrigated farming in the middle of a thickly populated area of small scale farmers.

Fifteen years later in November 2017, the scheme collapsed with Burgess owing 350 million shillings ($3,500,000) in salary arrears plus substantial other debts to Kenyan suppliers. What happened?

Burgess claims that he was unable to continue because of Kenyan corruption and then political opposition. The political opposition developed because the project had lost the support of the local population. None of the promised community development happened. Local people whose houses were possessed for the project were given 6,000 shillings ($60) for their home. Women were paid 200 shillings ($2.00) per day to shoo away the birds eating the rice. Local farmers claimed that the aerial spraying of herbicides (really is this what Kenya needs?) drifted onto their land and made their animals sick. As a result the project lost the support of the community. 2017 was an election year and politicians including Raila Odinga who comes from this area withdrew any support that they previously had for the project. I suspect, though, that the major reason was that Burgess was pouring money and more money into the project with no possibility of making a profit.

The lesson is that a wealthy “can-do” capitalist who believes in American exceptionalism (“the theory that the peaceful capitalism of the US constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development”) is doomed for failure. A healthy dose of humility and skepticism needs to be a major part of any large-scale agricultural scheme.

Irrigation at the Galana Kulalu Irrigation Scheme.

Only 20% of the land area of Kenya is suitable for farming depending upon rain fed agriculture. Consequently Kenya often has a food deficient and has to import food from other countries including neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. One of the solutions to this problem, according to conventional wisdom, is large scale irrigation schemes controlled by the government. One of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s mega-projects, named the Galana Kulalu Irrigation Scheme, planned to irrigate 1,000,000 acres in an arid area near the coast with water from two nearby rivers to produce 40 200-lb bags of maize per acre. If this happened, it would double the Kenyan annual maize harvest.

Note: In a good year Kenya is nearly self-sufficient in maize. It is unclear where all this extra maize would be sold since the price of maize in Kenya is well above the world price and even that of Uganda and Tanzania. Would its success then put all those maize farmers including many small-scale farmers out of business?

This was announced in 2014 and 15 billion shillings ($146,000,000) was allocated to initiate the project’s first 10,000 acres. Only 5000 acres were planted that year and the harvest was only 10 bags per acre, well below that from rain fed agriculture where I live upcountry. The next year 23 bags per acre were harvested from 5145 acres. Then the third year (2017) 31 bags per acre were harvested on only 3000 acres. This was all done by the government itself. Although the concept was that this farming would be a public/private partnership where companies would be licensed to cultivate allocated acreage, after initial interest, it seems there are no private partners willing to invest in this project. This year there has been little news on the scheme and it is probably dying a natural death.

It is so easy to sit in the armchair and multiply out acreages and mythical harvests to make grandiose schemes seem viable. What if all the funds sent on this scheme had been used to support small scale famers, for example, by subsidizing fertilizer for the maize crop?

My conclusion is that Africa and the world is not going to be fed by grandiose agricultural schemes based on the US model of large, highly mechanized, capital intensive production. Much better results are going to be had by supporting the vast majority of small scale farmers to increase their production, shortage, and marketing.  

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