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Letter from Ithanga: Murang’a’s unexploited agricultural Canaan

By XN Iraki | July 27th 2021

Exploring Kenya can be fun and fascinating.

Last month, I visited Ithanga, the last frontier of Murang’a County bordering Machakos County.

It sounds far, but it’s only 90km southwest of Nairobi. Take the Thika-Garissa Road past Kilimambogo, and as the Del Monte plantation ends, turn left, cross Thika river and after about 20km, you are in Ithanga. 

It’s a settlement scheme started in 1970 by remnants of squatters who lived in Embu from around 1937.

For them it was a sort of homecoming, having originated from the upper Murang’a, which is better watered.

Witchcraft, they told me, drove them away, but that is a story for another day. I was told squatters from elsewhere joined the Embu tribe. 

They settled on this marginal land away from the well-watered highlands. The place mimics Laikipia, except it does not have the ranches that are synonymous with the area.

I was told the mzungus who lived in Ithanga were ranchers too, and grew coffee through irrigation. Ithanga is warm and a great place to retire. It’s beautiful with its hills and valleys. Both Gikuyu and Kamba languages are widely spoken.

The soil seems loose and easily eroded, perhaps alluding to the origin of its name from muthanga (sand).  

Beyond the new road, which has stirred the place into life with land speculators going into overdrive on FM radio stations to market the place, I noted fruits, particularly oranges, do so well, just like pineapples in the nearby Del Monte plantations. 

Fruits do well in such marginal areas, not too hot and not too cold. Oranges grow like weeds in Ithanga. Five oranges go for Sh20. This is in comparison with Sh45 a piece for the imported variety.

That had me thinking: Maybe I should start a small business and distribute oranges branded Ithanga. They are tastier and juicier than what I buy in supermarkets. 

Without being pessimistic, transport cost would eat into my profits going by the price of fuel.

It is also possible that Kenyans could consider fruits a luxury under the current state of the economy, leaving me with rotting oranges.  

During the peak season, the price of oranges is low because of perishability. Why can’t Ithanga oranges be sold in supermarkets? I  guarantee you they would sell like hotcakes. 

Maybe with the new all-weather road, more buyers will flock to Ithanga and bid up the price of oranges.  

No access roads

The low orange prices remind me of potatoes in the former white highlands. The prices are low because of perishability and poor road network.  

Why should there be an overproduction of food in one part of the country and hunger in another? Why can’t we match supply and demand?

Road and railway networks are one of the problems facing farmers. A good example is that much of Mombasa’s food comes from northern Tanzania.

Why is the Voi-Moshi railway non-operational yet it was opened during First World War to move military supplies. It could reduce transport costs and the price of food. 

Some very productive areas have no access roads, preference is given to urban areas where those with political voices live. Good roads would easily connect good markets and reduce the cost of food - a basic necessity.  

Our cultures could stand in the way of vibrant food markets. We stick to our traditional foods and miss out on nutritional value. 

Why does everyone grow maize? Why can’t we grow what is best for our region and trade with other regions?  

Branding, which would connect us to the product mentally, is missing. That would need experts to position oranges or other products in our minds.

Yet, everyone is running away from agriculture. Our appetite for foreign tastes does not make branding easier. Think of Ithanga oranges. 

The weakest link in agriculture is aggregation. Can we collect all these oranges and sell them in bulk?

In the early days of independence, that was easy. Every village and hamlet had a cooperative society through which farmers sold their produce and got their farm inputs. 

Soko huru (free markets) killed cooperative societies. Farmers were left under the mercy of brokers and cartels.

Poverty now stalks farmers as hunger stalks the nation. Let us be fair to brokers and cartels, they just filled a vacuum created by the end of the old economic order without a replacement. Where do we go from here?  

When markets fail, the government comes in, hopefully as an honest broker. Have you noted the government intervention in the coffee and tea sectors? Why can’t the same effort be focused on food crops like oranges or potatoes? 

If farmers can aggregate their crops, brand them, take them to the market through an efficient transport network and Kenyans changed their tastes, the plight of farmers would change.

For Ithanga, some irrigation would turn this place into Canaan. I suspect even grapes would do very well. Think of Ithanga wine.  

But there is one more hurdle to overcome; we need optimal regulation in this sector. The vacuum left by the death of cooperatives has sucked in all sorts of players.

Their interests override those of the farmers. Left to their own devices, farmers will sink deeper into poverty and despair.


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