Subsistence farming is the cause of all our problems

If you watched Johannes, the World Bank Country head’s press conference on Friday, you should be worried. The Bank is worried that the declining food productivity especially maize will lead to severe food insecurity in the country. There are signs that we may not get sufficient rainfalls next year. This is no longer a surprise since the drought cycle in Kenya is four years.

Subsistence farming is the cause of all our problems. The solution is that we must reduce those we call farmers from 80% to less than 5% and increase manufacturing from its current contribution to GDP of 11% to more than 40%. We must move to large scale and mechanized farming in order to significantly improve on our productivity.

To achieve this, we must address land use in this country but we have decided to bury our heads in the sand on the issue of land. The problem is not in the distribution of it or the size one owns but in land use. It is far much easier to tax the Delameres for not utilizing the land than resettling 10,000 people on the land on the basis of ensuring equitable distribution of land. There is no country that has developed with majority of its people spread throughout the country in what they call Home Square.

There are more than 70 million people living in England which is the size of Nyanza. In Kenya, 20% of land is arable and can be used without reliance on irrigation. This is far bigger space than England but due to our primitive sub-division of the land, we are not able to use the land productively.

In Kisii, which is the most fertile land in Kenya, average land size has dropped to less than two acres. Some “farmers” grow less than 100 stalks of maize. Clearly we are creating problems as we see crime soaring.

As Johannes concluded, we must scale up our manufacturing. This will enable us to rapidly urbanize and hopefully leave land for farming. Manufacturing opportunities in Kenya are enormous with insatiable market around us. Can we for once wake up and try exploiting these opportunities? I shall be the first one to contribute Ksh. 100,000 as capital for those willing to mobilize resources and take the risk of venturing into manufacturing, either in light electronics or in value added services to our agricultural products.

There is a body of knowledge that will help us minimize the risk. I know for example, if we met the standards of potatoes we consume at KFC, we can begin to compete with Egypt and Brazil. This also provides us with the opportunity to develop standards apps and further expand job opportunities.

It is my prayer that this time round we go past palaver and do something not just for us, but for the country.

Image source: Sagarkatdare

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  • Antony Muga

    Dear Sir,
    Subsistence farming is not the reason behind declining food productivity. We have seen declining yields even in large scale wheat farming in Kajiado and Laikipia. Land that was previously fertile has been reduced and abused year after year through erosion, chemical fertilizers etc. Large scale commercial farming will mean people with small shambas end up having to look for jobs in these large farms. But the Kericho Tea farms have confirmed to us that these people will eventually loose their jobs when the machines come in then they will not even be able to feed their families.
    Ever wondered why forest land never erodes, never loses moisture content, never loses fertility? Nobody ploughs in there, nobody sprays pesticides, nobody applies manure or fertilizers, but the forest lands are as fertile as can be because of the natural cover from the falling leaves that are then turned into manure by micro-organisms. Forest lands do not lose soil cover as fast as the farmlands. It’s a simple principle.
    In Kajiado or Laikipia for example, we have seen large farms tilled or ploughed and left open to erosion by wind and rain over long periods of time. Deep gulleys eventually form and the fertile topsoil is eventually lost. Then chemical fertilizers are applied year after year. At the end of the day the land becomes used up without any natural nutrients left in it, no micro-organisms, no moisture holding capacity etc.
    I work in an organization that has demonstrated using control plots (conventional method) vs Farming God’s way technique and the results are amazing. Unploughed land, that is mulched and weeded (by pulling the weed by hand, not jembe) produced 5 to 8 times more yields. Whether it is maize, beans etc, Kenyan subsistence farmers can produce enough not just for themselves, but enough for export as well as storage.
    We can invite you to come and see these results for yourself. And we can prove that subsistence farmers in Kenya alone can feed the entire East African population using Farming God’s Way technique.

    • Bitange Ndemo

      Thank you for your comment. I have looked at the performance of food production in 5 counties that are heavily populated and the results are contrary to what you have said. The question is when shall we stop subdividing land? Studies show that less than 5% of any population that can be classified as farmers or have the passion for farming. What we have in our rural areas, are just idlers waiting to beg from the urbanites. We could use this resource differently by creating value added services, that is where we can absorb them and leave true farmers on the ground.

      It’s time also to now move into manufacturing. Our population favors us on this. Why should we for example import rulers from China! Kenya imports up to Kshs. 20 billion worth of dried tomatoes, 80% of Ghana’s chicken consumption is imported from Brazil while Gabon imports 100% of its eggs from France. The point I’m trying to make is that there are opportunities where we can absorb our labor by increasing productivity through agricultural mechanization. At the rate of our population growth we cannot till our land by hand and feed the nation. It doesn’t matter that small holder or substitent farmers can increase their own productivity. There’s no way that produce from small holder farmers can feed Kenya. Most of their produce is for their own consumption. We can meet and discuss this point by looking at data.

  • Shadrack Kamau

    The government should also think of facilitating the reorganization of farming communities so that instead of a farmer and his homestead living in and working on their 2 acre farm (likely to be further demarcated when the children grow up) farmers in a given area are built for houses in a designated area where it is even easier and economical to serve them as a community, one police station, one hospital, school etc then land can be re-consolidated to be farmed by the same same population while some of them build the houses, schools, hospital and others work in the factory processing what is being farmed…

    • Ngoma

      Good point – the Kibbutz or Nyerere’s Ujamaa style.

  • VisionandWisdom

    Really? – Manufacturing to solve a food problem?
    This requires a lot more thought I think Bitange.
    I admire you putting thought into how to help your country and people but Manufacturing is highly water intensive, leads inevitably to people becoming only resource to be used on very low wages. Their quality of life drops and their food supply options are actually reduced because you have taken away productive land!
    I think learning more about better ways of farming or how to supply smaller groups with more local and regional approaches would be a better start.
    Modern 2014 Capitalism is not the future you necessarily want for your country. I imagine when our financial system finally explodes this will prove to be sadly too true.

  • Riches Picker

    If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. – Peter Drucker

    Improving subsistence farming has the potential to lead to a faster rate development. To improve on subsistence farming, as in improving anything else, we need to measure it. I have started a personal initiative to measure and improve subsistence farming. I am looking for others to either join my initiative or start their own. To see what I am doing, please visit Measuring
    subsistence farming is no doubt complex, but development happens when we solve

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