A map of Kenya just before independence showing the 20% of the country that is arable land and the significant portion controlled by the British white settlers, usually the best of that arable land.

Land. That’s the big issue. To be a small-scale farmer, a person needs to have access to land. The most common method of getting land is by inheritance from the father. Only sons inherit land as the daughters move to their husband’s land. How much land a man receives as his inheritance has a lot of variables including the number of wives and sons his grandfather and father had, the original amount of land the ancestor had about 1900, and the many vagaries of life over generations. For example, I know a person whose father had 84 acres. But he had four wives and seventeen sons so each of them got about 5 acres. Then that person had four sons, so each one had only a little over an acre. To compensate for this small amount, he bought land elsewhere, but his sons preferred to remain in the home area. I do not know the current status of the grandsons.

The concept that a certain person owns a piece of land was a British importation into Kenya. This private ownership of land with a title deed is the major method of land holding in the former white highlands. Nonetheless there are major problems due to corruption in the land offices where land titles deeds are given for bribes and fake title deeds are produced by the “land cartels” that specialize in this fraud. The “owners” of these corrupt transactions quickly sell “their land” to unsuspecting people. The Kenyan courts are full of land cases over disputed title deeds.

In the African areas, the situation is much more fluid and complex. When the British arrived in Kenya, there was a low population density and no large commercial farms. Consequently there was a lot of available land and each person, usually with the agreement of the surrounding relatives (the “elders”), a man could obtain as much land has he could properly use. If his needs declined, then the land returned to the community and could be allocated to someone else.

Another issue is that before British colonialism, people and whole groups of people moved when necessary because of drought, sickness, or fighting. Consequently the different tribes in Kenya were frequently intermixed. When the British came one of their strategies of ruling was “divide and rule.” To implement this they drew boundaries on the land and everyone within a certain boundary had to be of one specific tribe. For example, in Machakos district if a person lived on one side of the line one was a Kamba, but if the person lived on the other side of the line, he/she was a Maasai. Even to this day there are disputes, sometimes violent, over these tribal boundaries since both sides can usually claim that at one time they inhabited the same area.

The Kenyan Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission not only conducts elections, but decides the boundaries of the various counties and constituencies. In Kenya this is based on ethnic considerations — first as tribal, then as sub-tribal, then as clans, and lastly extended families at the local level. Politicians naturally try to manipulate the system to their benefit – think gerrymanding in the United States, but on ethnic, tribal lines. People who are not from the dominate tribal/ethnic group are considered “foreigners”. When elections come around, aspirants will say things like, “The fields must be weeded,” meaning the “foreigners” need to be expelled. This leads to the election violence common in most Kenyan elections.

As the population increased and the British alienated half the arable land for European settlement, land available for the small-scale farmer became scarcer. By the time of independence in 1963 most of the arable land was allocated so that there was no more vacant land for people to move to. The Million Acre Resettlement Scheme in the former white highlands was one attempt to successfully allocate more land to African small-scale farmers.  

Another method of obtaining land is to buy it. Some of the larger former European farms have been divided up into smaller lots. At independence land was quite cheap but most people did not have the available cash to buy land. Now land is quite expensive. A friend of mine who worked in agriculture in Iowa emailed me recently that arable land in Iowa is around $7,000 per acre. Agricultural land around Lumakanda is now $8,000 per acre and increasing every year as population increases but the land area does not. At this expensive rate for land only the wealthy are able to buy land. Usually this is in small lots of an acre, more or less. In the over-populated area of Chavakali where Gladys originally came from, land is not sold and, if it were, it would be extremely expensive. The landless who live by day labor do not have the financial ability to buy even a small plot of land.

As the average small-scale farm has become smaller, the result has been intensifying the agricultural productivity of the land. This is a continuing process. As one can observe the differences between the best small-scale farmers and the worst ones, there is a large possibility of improvement. Moreover,

  • if the government allocates sufficient resources to the agricultural sector,
  • if agricultural extension for the small-scale farmer is adequately funded and promoted,
  • if corruption is weeded out of marketing,
  • if farmer organizations and cooperatives are promoted at the expense of middlemen,
  • if more productive, drought resistant new crop varieties are developed and disseminated,
  • if crop prices are set at beneficial rates for the farmer,
  • if rural road are adequately built and maintained,
  • if unused and minimally used areas of large farmers are turned over to small-scale farmers,

then small-scale farmers can more than feed Kenyan’s growing population.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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