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A case for repurposing land use for agriculture

By Allan Mungai - Jun 27th 2022
A farmer walks through a maize farm at the Hola irrigation scheme in Tana River County.  [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

Experts have backed the decision at a Cabinet meeting last month to repossess idle land owned by public institutions for agricultural production.

A dispatch after the meeting stated that the Policy on Large Scale Commercialisation of Public land held for Agricultural Production seeks to provide a framework for the utilisation of idle land owned by public institutions for large-scale commercial agricultural production.

Ms Janet Ngombalu, an expert in food systems and climate at the East African Grain Council, says the country is feeling pressure from reduced arable land due to population and climate change pressures.

She says the government needs to involve the private sector to help with implementation so the project can take off immediately. The pledge to make the country food secure has become an almost permanent feature in government aspirations.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government prioritised food security in its Big Four agenda. Now presidential candidates Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto are also promising to enhance the country’s food security and boost earnings for farmers if elected.

But Ngombalu says there is an urgent need to boost investments to help small-scale farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change as a solution to food scarcity. “You cannot separate food security, agriculture and the climate,” she said.

The country is struggling to produce adequate food also due to competing demands on the land, leading to change in use to commercial, due to the burgeoning real estate.

Ms Ngombalu says the government can explore proposals to have farmers lower the cost of production. “You consolidate a region to grow the same crop and increase its yield. Rwanda has done that for wheat and potatoes,” she says, adding: “Farmers who cultivate small parcels barely break even with any crop. Commercial farming is going to be the direction.”

She says food-secure countries such as Israel, despite being a desert, consolidate and mechanise land. “The smallholders will keep their land but it is consolidated and commercially supported so that there are inputs and tractors.”

Kenya, she says, must find use for idle arable land, give farmers and local investors incentives, and support mechanisation.

She says agrifinance has been a challenge, as while there are financial products to support farmers, the model they employ is not beneficial. She suggested use of Warehouse Receipts System (WRS), where farmers can use their products as collateral to access financing. WRS is an electronic system that allows farmers to deposit commodities in certified warehouses belonging to National Cereals and Produce Board, and are issued with receipts as they wait for prices to be favourable. WRS has been launched in Kitale.

Ngombalu advises that WRS be used as a way for farmers to secure finance. “They can get 60 per cent of the finances required to buy inputs and pay after harvest. That gives you a leeway to balance the finances required for farming. What we were asking farmers to do is consolidate their production processes so that when they come together in groups they are able to bulk their needs.

“If you all need fertiliser, it is easier to join the neighbours then maybe a company can bring them and then you reduce the costs for that. If you need tractors you can lease one together as a group,” she says.

As part of a strategy to alleviate food security, the government introduced the concept of the industrial farm in Galana Kulalu in 2013.

Ngombalu says the Galana Kulalu idea was good, but it needed to be managed better.

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