To appreciate just how low a priority agriculture policy is to Kenya’s leading politicians, just consider what we saw during the recent presidential campaigns:
For example, President Uhuru Kenyatta went to Meru and offered a subsidy of Sh1 billion to support miraa farmers whose produce has been banned from key markets in Europe.
And in Mumias, he presided over the “revival” of the Mumias Sugar factory with a pledge that all outstanding debts owed to farmers for sugarcane delivered to the factory would soon be paid. A cheque for Sh500 million was publicly handed over for this initial purpose, with a further Sh3.2 billion pledged for the full revival of the factory.
Not to be outdone, the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Uhuru’s main challenger, made his own extravagant promises to the miraa farmers in Meru. Further, his associates were quick to dismiss the financial support made available to Mumias Sugar as a mere campaign gimmick intended to hoodwink the farmers.
The significant point that comes out of all this is the casual and populist nature of these initiatives.
Compare this with what happens in one of the few sectors of the Kenyan economy that has all along operated with a modicum of professionalism — the higher education sector.
Going back all the way to the single-party Moi era autocracy, Kenyan universities have been run in a manner broadly comparable to similar institutions all over the world.
There is a well-defined system for accrediting new universities; well-scrutinised syllabi for each university course; minimum academic requirements for the admission of students, etc.
Hence, you find that Kenyan politicians aspiring to gubernatorial office — for which university education is a prerequisite — find it easier to seek their ‘degrees’ in other African nations, or in obscure evangelical colleges in the US, where even PhDs can be obtained without the inconvenience of any time spent in a classroom.
Now agriculture is far more fundamental to the well-being of this country than higher education. True, we need educated men and women. But in a country where about 70 per cent of the population live in the rural areas and struggle to make a living off the land through small-scale farming, effective agriculture policy is a matter of life and death.
Indeed, there can be no national priority greater than that of ensuring that small-scale farming is profitable for those willing to work hard at it.
So, our agricultural sector should have all the things that we see in higher education: Global standards, structured long-term planning, digital records, generous unsecured loans, research facilities, and even linkages and partnerships with foreign centres of excellence.
Instead we find agriculture in a permanent state of crisis, with destitute farmers all over the country regularly pleading for bailouts, and only receiving them when there is a presidential election at hand.
These random bailouts in many cases are no solution at all. They are merely evidence of policy failure, and a lack of serious intent on the part of the government.
Successive Kenyan governments have been bailing out sugar factories for decades now, but the farmers who supply sugarcane to these factories (the intended beneficiaries of these bailouts) only fall deeper and deeper into poverty.
Miraa offers the oddest policy failure of all: It was once the single most profitable crop grown in Kenya. But the ban on miraa imports by European nations was effectively the end of the game for this unusual crop — reportedly just a mild recreational stimulant,m but all the same, highly addictive.
Yet not one prominent leader from Meru, nor any leading presidential candidate, has come out to state the obvious: That what the miraa farmers in Meru need is not the Sh1 billion subsidy received in fulfilment of an election promise, but a multibillion-shilling long-term plan for creating an alternative cash crop economy.
All we see are such leaders, on their visits to Meru, grimacing as they conspicuously chew miraa at a political rally, and subsequently rising to make empty promises that they will somehow “renegotiate” entry into the European markets for this crop.