How the Bura Irrigation Scheme was designed to fail

A farmer harvesting watermelons from the Bura Irrigation scheme in Tana River. [File, Standard]

The road to hell is paved with many good intentions and so has Kenya's quest to have sufficient food within her borders.

The dream started 13 years after Kenya's independence when the government designed a master plan that perceived a road map out of famine and starvation.

And this is how Bura Irrigation Scheme in Tana River was conceived as a case study on how Kenya would free herself from relying on rain-fed agriculture.

What the crafty politicians running the government at the time did not tell the world was that they intended to use the scheme to settle as many landless people as possible.

When the donor community which had forked out $37.8 million (Sh4.8 billion) learnt that Jomo Kenyatta's government was allocating two plots measuring about 1.5 acres each, they were troubled.

This marked the beginning of a nightmare as the cost of the project shot up by 65 per cent, forcing some donors to pull out.

At one point, the donors had tried to convince the government to terminate the project after realising that it was not sustainable. The donors included the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Commonwealth Development Corporation and European Development Fund.

But the government would hear none this and settled 5,150 families on 16,125 acres of land. The settlers were expected to grow cotton and other subsistence crops that would not interfere with the main principal cash crop.

The construction of the canals and other works started two years later and by 1982, the project was three years behind schedule.

World Bank reports indicate that the cost of settling the farmers, which had initially been estimated to cost $18,000, had shot up to $35,000 making it untenable.

The original houses built by the National Irrigation Board at a cost of Sh4,000 per unit were done so shabbily that the government had to reconstruct them after hiring a private contractor at an additional cost.

An audit conducted between 1976 and 1984 in Bura showed that going by the prevailing cotton price, if a farmer harvested 2,500 kilos of cotton per year, he could only make Sh7,400.

The farmer was, however, spending Sh7,500 annually on cultivation, water, settlement and operation and maintenance.

When President Daniel Moi visited the scheme in January 1986, he wrote off the project as a failure and expressed shock over the squalid state of the settlers' houses. They were yet to be paid for the cotton they had delivered.

Today, cotton farming in Bura is dead. Rice growing too has collapsed because of myriad problems. Meanwhile, the country is now praying that Zambia, with its population of 19 million, will be magnanimous enough to lease Kenya some land to produce food to feed an estimated six million people facing hunger.