Is Kenya ready to reintroduce the Shamba System?

A view of Mt Elgon Forest. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua's proposal to revert to the Shamba system has sparked debate on whether Kenya is ready for the re-introduction of the system that was banned twice by different regimes.

Speaking on Saturday, in Baringo County, Gachagua hinted that the government has plans to allow peasant farmers to carry out farming in forests to boost food production in the country.

"There was Shamba System where locals could plant maize until the trees grow. This government is yours, we have made an order for Wananchi to be given an opportunity to cultivate in the forest to have more food," Gachagua said.

How the Shamba system worked

The agroforestry approach started way back in 1910 under tolonial rule to promote sustained and optimum production of food crops while assisting forest conservation. Under the system, agricultural crops are grown together with the forest trees.

During the Moi administration, the system was aligned and locals would cooperate with officials from the Kenya Forest Service in matters allocation of land (mostly not more than an acre for each family).

After allocation, the had grown after around three years, the beneficiaries would hand back the land to the Kenya Forest officials.

Back then, the main aim was to afforest land where exotic trees had been cut for timber and as well as boost the food supply chain across the country.

Among the crops that were grown included; maize, beans, groundnuts, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. At the same time, those allocated the land would be allowed to harvest firewood, forest fruits and even keep beehives.

Why it was successful

From the onset, the Shamba System was successful because at its introduction stage, the government through the Kenya Forest docket had designated personnel who worked hand in hand with farmers on a weekly basis.

With this in place, the farmer could be guided on what to plant and what not to during what season plus kinds of trees to plant and when to harvest.

The officers were also in charge of plot acquisition hence ensuring that only those with good intentions were vetted and allocated.

However, it was later banned under the late Mwai Kibaki;s era, after it emerged that most farmers refused to move out of their allocated plots after the three-year period given elapsed and had cut down the trees.

Another major reason that led to the Kibaki-led government to abolish the Shamba System was logging, where rogue millers would collaborate with some Kenya Forest Service officials to cut trees for personal benefits.