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February 15, 2019

Focus on farmers before factories


What do you think the average governor would do, if a barefooted, scruffy-looking Kenyan voter managed to somehow get past all his security team, and screamed at him (or her): “You are failing in your primary responsibility, which is to make me rich”?

I don’t know what the governor would do. But I think it likely that most bystanders would be merely amused. While the security team, fearful of being returned to a less glamorous (and infinitely less remunerative) assignment, would very likely turn with fury on the poor man. Only instant flight on his dusty bare feet would save him from a savage beating.

And yet, that is the truth of the matter: More than anything else, governors are supposed to find a way to generate prosperity in their counties.

It’s all very well to have each county receive ‘devolved funds’, which are to be dedicated to ‘devolved functions’ like health. The idea that county governments are likely to be more sensitive to local priorities than a distant central government is certainly valid.

But there is a reason why, as so often stated, “The residents of Muthaiga generally have no idea who their MP is; while those in Mathare know every last MCA candidate from the last election.”

Those who have some money to spend will usually find a way to address their health challenges. While those who live from hand to mouth — the great majority of Kenyans — pin their hopes on their elected representatives creating an accessible and functioning public health sector with ‘government doctors’ and ‘free medicine.

It is for this reason that I consider the most important headline from last week’s newspapers to be the one in The People Daily, which stated “Ndengu Glut Leaves Kitui Farmers with Empty Pockets.”

More than the ongoing ‘Uhuru succession’ political manoeuvres across the country, more than the theatrics of the ‘war on corruption’, this was worthy of our attention.

It reveals that at least one governor — in this case Kitui’s Charity Ngilu — has made a bold attempt at creating some degree of prosperity in the smallholder farms in the rural parts of her county.

As with all experiments, there are bound to be some initial setbacks. As I understand it, the growing of this ‘ndengu’ (or green grams, as it is called in English, or ‘Vigna radiata’ to use its scientific name) was premised on the expectation that much of the produce would be exported to India, where it is one of the staple foods. But this plan did not anticipate record surpluses in India itself, leading to a drop in demand — hence, a collapse of prices.

Be that as it may, Governor Ngilu is to be congratulated for having the courage to try and tackle this most difficult of all ‘development projects’: Coming up with an effective idea that has a realistic chance of bringing economic opportunity to the rural masses.

I have long argued that our greatest national priority is to find ways to make small-scale farming more productive; to make it possible, in other words, for a family of about six to have a decent life from the proceeds of a small farm of about five acres.

Indeed, this is a greater priority than the more fashionable aspiration of ‘industrialisation’ , because no matter how fast we might industrialise, we cannot create factory jobs fast enough for our hordes of unemployed youth. For the foreseeable future, most of our people will still have to make a living in the rural areas where about 70 per cent of us Kenyans live.

A majority of governors do not even make the attempt to confront this challenge posed by agrarian destitution. What we see most often in the media is an image which turns the stomach of anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of development economics.

By this I mean governors flashing broad idiotic grins; shaking hands with a foreigner in a cheap suit whom we are told is an ‘investor’; and a loud proclamation thereafter that a major manufacturing hub will be established, just as soon as the county leadership ‘identifies’ land suitable for such a historic venture.

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