Rami Toren (top left) of Green Arava in Israel explains to journalists how the centre pivot irrigation machine works to irrigate a maize plantation farm in a ten thousand hectares model Farm of Galana Kulalu Food Security Project which was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Galana Kulalu Irrigation Scheme. [Gideon Maundu, Standard]

The Galana-Kulalu pilot project has for a while now stood as an epitome of the mismanagement and corruption that eats at many third-world countries. Set in the coastal region within Kilifi and Tana River counties, and bordering the expansive Tsavo East National Park to the east, this ambitious food security project would have cost the Government upwards of Sh7.2 billion upon full implementation. 

At its inception nearly a decade ago, the Galana-Kulalu food security project was to be a key initiative of Kenya Vision 2030, a pillar that would largely support the Government’s dream to provide a high quality of life to all its citizens.

At the time, and under former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the 10,000-acre Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project, situated within the one million-acre Galana Irrigation complex, was launched under the “Big 4” agenda, as part of the regime’s drive to attain food security. During the inception of the food security project, the National Irrigation Board said once complete the project will see 500,000 acres of land put to maize production, 200,000 acres to sugar cane, 150,000 acres to beef and game animals, 50,000 acres to horticulture, 50,000 acres to dairy animals and an additional 50,000 acres would be channeled towards orchards.

When the rains started to beat

Former President Kenyatta at the launch of the project noted that upwards of 70 per cent of the country’s land is classified as arid and semi-arid, and the country could no longer be sustained by rain-fed agriculture.

“We must move to irrigation-fed agriculture. This is the only way we will be able to sustain our food security needs,” said former President Uhuru Kenyatta back then.

The Jubilee government targeted to, within five years, put one million acres of land under modern irrigation, a plan that would foreseeably fail given the poor implementation and corruption from the onset of the project. 

One of the centre pivot irrigation machine being installed on the second plantation farm in a ten thousand hectares model Farm of Galana Kulalu Food Security Project, which was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Galana Kulalu Irrigation Scheme. [Gideon Maundu, Standard]

With the promise of reducing the price of a packet of maize from Sh100 to roughly Sh84 given the relative abundance projected in production, matched with the promise of generating massive job opportunities in counties where it is situated, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation project was a welcome move from the Government. Work began in early 2015, after a Sh6.35 billion loan from Israeli’s Bank Leumi was signed.

But like with many government projects here in the country, the rain would soon start beating the Government. In 2015, amid controversies related to the contract between the Kenyan government and Israeli’s Green Arava, an organisation specialising in the design and implementation of turnkey agricultural projects worldwide, the first harvest was as disappointing as could be. The 10,000-acre model farm produced a lowly ten bags of maize per acre against an estimate of 40 bags of maize per acre.

In November 2015, Members of Parliament summoned then Cabinet Secretary for Water and Irrigation Eugene Wamalwa, to give an account of the Jubilee government’s one million-acre irrigation project as well as its viability.

At the committee meeting which Wamalwa failed to appear, Acting Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe could not comprehensively account for the Sh14 billion Eurobond proceeds that were purportedly used to finance the Galana-Kulalu irrigation project which is part of the one million acreage Jubilee plan.

CS Wamalwa would later attempt to explain the poor produce away by highlighting that the model farm had been planted with 13 varieties of maize, in a bid to determine which varieties would produce the best yields. Claims would also be made that the Ministry in conjunction with the National Irrigation Board had identified six types of maize of optimum quality for future planting.

In the second season of planting, from September 2015 to January 2016, 500 acres yielded only 3,101 bags of 90kg, translating to six bags per acre as opposed to recommended 22 bags of 90kgs.

Impact of El Nino Rains

The decline was attributed to the El Nino rains, which destroyed most of the maize crop in the farms. Between April 2016 and October 2016, Green Arava planted on 2,000 acres of land, managing a harvest of 59,066 bags of maize estimated at 31 bags per acre.

In 2018, citing non-payment, Green Arava ceased operations from the site. After the collapse of the project, the Israeli Government cited its displeasure saying that this was the first of such projects to collapse in over 70 years.

“Galana-Kulalu project was destroyed by cartels made up of maize importers and millers. They were the reason the project was deferred from the beginning,” said the then-ambassador Noah Gendler.

 In 2019, a Senate Agricultural Committee probing the stalled Galana-Kulalu model farm learned that the Government paid Sh580 million for bush clearing on only 10,000 acres of land, a job that was apparently done to a poor standard. The Senate would also find that Sh6.1 billion was reportedly paid to the contractor out of which Sh2.55 billion was paid by the Government of Kenya.

In December 2020, three years after the projected completion date of the Galana-Kulalu scheme, the Government awarded a Sh797 million tender to Irrico International Limited, a Kenyan-based irrigation company, for the completion of the model farm. Irrico International Limited was required to rehabilitate the water intake at the farm and install additional pumps in the model farm.

As of 2019, the Galana-Kulalu Scheme was projected to make Sh1.2 billion in maize sales per season. This projection remains a pipe dream as the food security project has only managed 119,000 90kg bags of maize, worth about Sh273.7 million.

President’s fresh move

In a fresh attempt to revive the scheme President William Ruto in a statement on Tuesday this week, revoked the planned subdivision of the Galana Kulalu in settlement parcels. Ruto said that the land will instead be used for maize production.

“I direct Private Sector and GOK (the National Irrigation Authority) under a Public–Private Partnership (PPP) to work on the ready 10,000 acres to produce food starting with maize in February,” he said.

The National Irrigation Authority will oversee the project. He also announced that the Government was in the process of constructing a dam as part of the project starting April this year. He also added that an additional 10,000 acres will be prepared for the production of food in the next six months under the Public-Private partnership. The dam will also be used to irrigate a further 350,000 acres which the government targets for food production.

Last year during the electioneering period, President Ruto attributed the failure of the project to a lack liability from the State.

“The recommendation from the trial of the project was that we needed to build a dam because the water from the river was not sufficient to do the Galana project. We needed to scale up,” Ruto said during a televised presidential debate.

The revival of the irrigation scheme comes at a time when the country is grappling with a wide array of socio-economic issues. Prolonged periods of drought, rising costs of farm inputs, the Ukraine-Russia war, as well as the disruption brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to the high inflation and food insecurity in the country. The soaring food prices have left the Government scrambling for a raft of measures to cushion its largely impoverished citizenry.

Lifting the ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the recent revival of the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme, speak to President Ruto’s awareness of the country’s grim food situation. But will the State get it right this time around?

To get it right with the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme this time around, experts propose a number of measures. Dr Timothy Njagi, a Development Economist and research fellow note that it is not surprising that the project collapsed.

“Initially, the big problem was the availability of water because there was no water storage. Water was initially sourced from the two rivers, Tana and Galana. And given the sheer size of the project this was not feasible,” explains Dr Njagi.

Dr Njagi further explains that the crop varieties grown in the scheme need to be re-evaluated. He says that food security should not refer to growing food specifically for consumption and that the Government ought to consider economically viable options.

“From the trials, based on the soils and other factors, it was very clear that maize was not going to perform well. Options such as rice, sugarcane, and premium beef cuts would see to it that the Government is able to earn revenue to import foods with a shortfall in the country,” says Njagi.

Similarly, models of irrigation need to be reconsidered as some of the touted technologies have high running costs that require a high return on investment to ensure that the project is feasible.

“I think what was pioneered was what some Israeli companies were promoting, But you see they were not necessarily cost-effective. In Israel they use those technologies to grow horticulture meaning they are able to sustain the running costs,” explains Dr Njagi.

He however says should the government remedy the errors that were made earlier, the project would help the country achieve food security. Based on the huge initial investment, it was inevitable that the government was going to revive the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme.

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