Land matters and reforms in Kenya are notoriously complex. Smallholder settlement schemes have played a central role in economic and political development strategies in post-colonial Kenya.
In the transition to Independence, settlement schemes helped to de-racialise land ownership in the former Whites-only scheduled areas, and offered land to many of those who had been displaced in the struggle against British colonial rule.
The first settlement schemes — including Mua Hills, Lugari, Lietego, Ndalat, Sigona and Malewa, to name a few — were allocated in 1962. These land transfers were linchpins in the political coalitions and economic development strategies in Kenya’s first 25 years of statehood, and they figure prominently in virtually all political-economy studies of Kenya in between 1960-1980.
Since the mid-1980s, however, scholarly attention in Kenya’s settlement schemes has declined. Often, the debate on these schemes has tended to focus narrowly on the merits of land adjudication and individual titling. Yet change continues to occur in these schemes in terms and conditions on which land is held, used and transacted. Scholarly and technical studies of settlement schemes in post-1985 Kenya are scarce and fragmented. Many outside observers believe the era of smallholder settlement schemes in Kenya came to a close around 1982. Yet the reality is quite the opposite!
In fact, almost half of Kenya’s 493 settlement schemes were created after the 1980s. The creation of new smallholder settlement schemes and the on-going institutional restructuring of the older ones has remained a central pillar of the Kenyan government’s efforts to address landless, ordinary citizens’ demands of land, land injustices and food sustainability.
A project initiated by the National Land Commission’s directorate of Research and led by research director Fibian Lukalo is contributing to the very large task of updating scholarly and policymakers’ knowledge of settlement schemes in Kenya. It began with Lukalo’s initial NLC Working Paper ‘Exploring the status of Settlement Schemes in Kenya’ ( 2016 ) published with her NLC colleague Samuel Odari. The aim of the project is to lay foundations for extracting policy lessons that will be relevant for not only 21st Century Kenya, but also governments and planners in other developing countries that are relying on smallholder settlement schemes as a pillar of rural development and post-conflict peace building policies.
The project asks: How have the schemes in general and specific to the earliest allocated fared over time? How have government policies and practices around the creation and support of smallholder settlement schemes changed over time? What variations in project design seem most important in determining scheme sustainability and success? What lessons for the future can be learned from an analysis of smallholder schemes across Kenya and over time?
In exploring answers to these questions, the NLC partnered with Prof Catherine Boone of the London School of Economics and Prof Sandra Joireman, at the University of Richmond, to create an inventory and geocode over 1,400 settlement scheme maps collected and scanned by the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning (Survey department).
With funding from the UK Economic and Social Research and the University of Richmond, a team of 10 Kenyan and US scholars and interns are working at the NLC. Under the direction of Prof Kimberley Browne, Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Richmond, they will inventory, catalog, geo-reference and digitise the settlement scheme maps.
This project is an example of international collaboration at its finest. Many commissioners from the NLC are seconded from Kenyan universities, as is Dr Lukalo. Their training provides them with the vision for multidisciplinary research on land, which can benefit the government and promote national development. Another important outcome is the training opportunities for NLC staff working with their international counterparts to geo-reference and digitise the maps.
The project will develop a complete geo-referenced inventory of scheme locations and basic scheme attributes that will become part of the basic patrimony to be used by policymakers, experts, citizens, and academic researchers in the pursuit of tenure security, welfare-enhancing public and private innovation in the land and human development sectors. Technical skills, scholarly collaboration, and geographic data will remain with the commission long after the international team goes home.