Last week I argued that the main reason for the continuing prevalence of poverty in Kenya is that we are still largely saddled with the agriculture and tourism-based economy, which we inherited from the British colonial government at Independence.
Attempts at diversifying the economy have largely failed. And, unfortunately for us, what worked well enough in generating economic development in the 1950s through to the 1970s is not very effective in bringing about widely shared prosperity.
So, what are some of the economic possibilities that are as yet unexploited, and which could bring about a measure of prosperity in specific regions of Kenya?
Well, one such opportunity lies in wildlife farming. And this has the further advantage that those who would most benefit from it would be the residents of the historically marginalised Northern counties.
There are two basic issues here:
First is that it has proved virtually impossible to persuade a good number of the residents of these Northern counties to abandon their nomadic pastoral way of life and ‘settle down’ in one place. So, if there is to be any economic advancement in those regions, it must be based on finding income-generating activities suitable for a people who occupy vast communally owned grazing lands.
Second is that there are many places in Northern Kenya that are so close to semi-desert that cows cannot thrive. Goats and camels, maybe. But it’s mostly wildlife that is to be found there in abundance. And it is herein that the opportunity lies. The example we should seek to emulate is New Zealand, which has a large population of deer. So large, in fact, that initially deer were hunted as vermin and seen as a threat to the grazing grounds of cows and sheep.
As a New Zealand government website explains, “Introduced for sport in the 19th century, deer became a pest in New Zealand’s forests. Hunted first by government cullers, and later from helicopters in remote areas, today deer have also become the basis of a thriving farming industry.”
Just how thriving this industry is comes out clearly on the same site: “Deer farming began in the late 1960s. Today there are more than 1.7 million deer on New Zealand farms. Deer are farmed for venison and for the velvet from their antlers.”
This demand for venison is linked to the Western obsession with avoiding obesity. As the New Zealand government site explains: “Venison (deer meat) is very healthy — low in fat and high in protein and minerals.”
So why can’t we boast of having 1.7 million elands and other antelopes and gazelles on wildlife ranches? Why is the export of such healthy and exotic meats not a prominent feature of the Northern Kenya economy? Just two reasons. First, there is a very powerful ‘anti-wildlife-utilisation’ lobby. They keep a very low profile and pretend to be concerned only with the conservation of wildlife. But their real agenda is far more sinister.
Further, they have convinced consecutive Kenyan governments that game farming would only benefit ‘a few rich White farmers’, whereas it is actually an opportunity that could revolutionise the economy of the marginalised counties of Northern Kenya.
The full extent of their influence was revealed in 2005 when Parliament in passed a law that would have set the country down the road to wildlife utilisation. But prominent members of this lobby persuaded President Mwai Kibaki to refuse to sign it into law.
Second, possibly no region is as difficult to unite for collectively beneficial economic goals as Northern Kenya.
And whereas we nowadays see leaders from that region holding high office here and there, these individuals generally have no influence at all outside their own constituencies or counties.
So, when a golden opportunity comes along — like the proposed current review of laws relating to wildlife utilisation — these leaders will predictably fail to work together to seize it.
And chances are this opportunity will be allowed to slip away.