Mud huts, unused land: Why Siaya is poor despite huge potential

Tiny grass-thatched residential houses are common, especially in Ugenya and Alego Usonga subcounties

In Summary
  • The CIDP records that 84.2 per cent of the rural population in Siaya use firewood as the main source of fuel.
  • KNBS suggests that Siaya would contribute more to Kenya’sG DP if it engages in serious agricultural activities.
Ugenya MP David Ochieng donates school items to students joining Form 1 at Sega Technical Training Institute on May 10
Ugenya MP David Ochieng donates school items to students joining Form 1 at Sega Technical Training Institute on May 10

Most residents of Siaya are still languishing in abject poverty, 58 years after independence and 10 years of devolution.

Tiny grass-thatched residential houses are still common, especially in Ugenya and Alego Usonga subcounties.

The County Integrated Development Plan 2018-2022 says up to 32.1 per cent of houses in Siaya are grass-thatched.

The plan further shows that 70.1 per cent of the houses have earthen floor and 63.8 per cent of them are mud or wood-walled. 

According the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the type of shelter indicates one’s socioeconomic situation.

The CIDP records that 84.2 per cent of the rural population in Siaya use firewood as the main source of fuel.

Up to 71.4 per cent of them depend on the traditional three stones cooking fire place. 

Siaya county coordinator of Shinning Hope for Communities (Shofco) Hellen Abuor confirmed that poverty is real in the area.

“Poverty indicators like dilapidated grass-thatched houses and malnourished children in Early Childhood Education Centres are common in Siaya,” Abuor said.

The Luo Council of Elders deputy chairman Thomas Achiando said grass-thatched houses have little cultural significance.

“Grass was being used because there were no iron sheets. It is good for our people to upgrade because iron sheets last longer and help with water harvesting,” Achiando said.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Gross County Product 2021 report says Siaya contributed just one per cent of its wealth to the national Value Added Tax 2013-20.

The GCP report ties Siaya together with Turkana at position 30 out of the 47 devolved units.

So, why is Siaya still falling in the league of arid and semi-arid lands?

Siaya's 2018-28 sSpatial plan says the region has larger agroecological zones with above average rainfall per annum. 

This is contrary to the long-held notion that Siaya has arid conditions, thus not appropriate for crop production.

Gem, Ugunja and Ugenya (Northen Siaya) receive 1600-2000mm of rain per year.

Lower Ugenya, Upper Alego and Gem (central Siaya) receive 1200-1600mm of rain per year.

Only Bondo and Rarieda (southern Siaya) receive low rain of 800-1200mm.

Gem, Ugenya and parts of Alego Usonga have loamy soil, which is conducive for agriculture.

Despite the long rains currently pounding Siaya, a spot check by the Star revealed that most subsistence farmers have not committed their entire farms to crop production.

Large parcels of private lands are lie fallow filled with thickets and  there are a few goats grazing.

Ugenya MP David Ochieng and Siaya Senate aspirant James Wamban of the Movement for Democracy and Growth are encouraging small holder farmers to till their farms.

Ochieng has distributed certified seeds and other farm input to farmers in Ugenya and he is banking on the initiative to seek a reelection on August 9.

“Our people seem to be over dependent on paltry handouts from politicians to the extent of forgetting their farms. I do remind them to sow seeds to overcome poverty,” Wamban said.

At the start of the planting season, Shofco distributed certified seeds to their members in Siaya.

“We distributed seeds to them but most farmers did not use fertilisers due to high prices. So not all are expecting a bumper harvest,” Abuor said. 

She said most farms have not been ploughed for long and farmers opt to buy imported products to save on land preparation costs.

Overall, Siaya is a net importer of food products, relying on neighbouring counties of Busia, Kakamega, Kisii and Uganda to feed its population of more than 993,183 people on eggs, sukuma wiki, grains and bananas.

The county’s CIDP approximates that 2,059 km² of the total 2,530 km² in Siaya is arable land and agriculture provides 61 per cent  of employment opportunities.

Across the six subcounties, CIDP notes, the average land size per small scale farmer is 0.8ha in Gem and Ugunja,  1ha (in Alego Usonga, Bondo and Rarieda) and 2ha in Ugenya. 

Siaya has up to 1,005 km2 water surface area of Lake Victoria but no meaningful aquaculture is taking place.

Residents lament lack of startup capital to establish cage farms inside Lake Victoria, leaving the endeavour to a few non-native investors. 

Achiando urges the people to convert their lands into meaningful agriculture.

“Some of our people are just being lazy. They don't farm that is why they still get grass to build,” he said.

Siaya has two major rivers, Yala and Nzoia, and Yala Swamp.

The swamp is community land, which is an agriculturally rich wetland occupying parts of Alego and Bondo subcounties.

Attempts by a private investor, Lake Agro Limited, to use the wetland for agricultural production has continuously been opposed by the  community, which feels duped.

“Yala Swamp is a community land and we must be consulted before it is leased to any private entity,”  community chairperson Walter Otieno said in a past interview.

Nothing is going on in the wetland as the battle rages on in court.

KNBS suggests that Siaya would contribute more to Kenya’s GDP if it engages in serious agricultural activities.

Both the CIDP and the spatial plan state that Siaya can produce maize, sorghum, beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, rice, sugarcane, groundnuts and cotton.

With not so many committing to farming many residents have remained unemployed, further pushing youths to the perilous gold mining sites.

A tragedy struck Abimbo gold mines in Bondo subcounty this year burying miners alive. The body of one miner, Tom Okwach, has never been retrieved.

Siaya is home to great people like Argwins Kodhek, scholars Bethwel Ogot and Grace Ogot and Prof George Magoha, rapper Khaligraph Jones, politicians James Orengo and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

(Edited by Tabnacha O)

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