While land fragmentation is a major problem in many parts of the world, in Kisii and Nyamira counties, it has been made worse by population pressure and poverty with family feuds often degenerating into protracted court cases and even death.
While the region has high agricultural productivity, land pressure has seen locals largely abandon cash crops such as coffee while pyrethrum is all but gone. Only tea plantations can be found in most households.
What distinguishes the Gusii community of the 1980s and beyond from the present is the reduced land sizes and extinction of cash crops that were the foundation of the region’s economy
While the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya has embarked on efforts to reintroduce the once lucrative crop, National Land Commission chairman Gershom Otachi has warned that ancestral land sub-division has all but wiped out sustainable agriculture in the region.
This has led to increased poverty and malnutrition and pushed the population into migration to urban areas in search of greener pastures.
Otachi recently noted that previously arable land in remote parts of Kisii and Nyamira counties has been subdivided into tiny strips that have turned into urban centers where families have built palatial houses.
Parents in the area were forced into subdividing family land because of inheritance, particularly for their sons. There are several bloody land-related conflicts in the region with some cases having dragged on in court for years.
So dire is the situation that in many homesteads, there is more family land to be subdivided.
Some families have sold off nearly the entire family land and moved to shop centers to continue begging and doing menial jobs as they no longer have space to put up houses.
“We have carried out research and found that the rate of fragmentation of land was very high and a threat to food production in the country. Urbanization was also a threat to food production and should be checked,” said Otachi during a function in Kisii.
Ironically, while most families are grappling with land scarcity, some are leasing their land to get money to sort out basic needs, and emergencies and to educate their children.
Ichuni Ward Representative Wycliffe Siocha decries the endemic poverty in the area, noting some families have been forced to lease an acre of land at Sh3,000 a year.
“Families want money to solve some emergency issues. They have no option but to give out their land; those lucky enough to have title deeds are selling out their family land cheaply and eventually relocate to market centers to begin begging,” he noted.
Rachel Otundo, a land surveyor in Kisii town, says those in power have failed to give direction to the locals. Agriculture, she said, is doing badly. “No new market, and no value addition. We need the creation of employment through industries, soapstone, banana, avocado and sugarcane farming. We need to introduce new ding crops.”
Before funding these industries, she explained that there is a need to find a unique market.
Educated but unemployed youth
“A factory can only thrive once we have put up our own farms for fresh produce and then check the market sustainability,” she said.
Lawyer Gideon Nyambati argues that the Gusii region has a high number of educated but unemployed youth yet it has had a gradual reduction of arable land for farming.
“The end result is catastrophic; a battle for the little remaining space that can no longer allow land subdivision. Here we have a new wave of murder cases because of family wrangles to share the small portions of land available,” he adds.
Nyambati says villagers are choking on huge bills. “The cash crops are gone, the population has gone high and there is no assured income. The poor continue scrambling for the little food and other resources available.”
The community has a population of 1.87 million people; 1.26 million (Kisii) and 605,576 (Nyamira) as per the 2019 Census.
Apart from land scarcity, water shortage is also becoming worrying. Almost all the natural springs are gone - dried up. Seasonal streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves due to the encroachment of riparian land.