NO JOBS, AGRICULTURE IN SHAMBLES

Shrinking options for ordinary Kenyans

Dream of rural prosperity has proved to be singularly elusive since Independence.

In Summary
  • On the one hand 300,000 sons and daughters end up “back on the farm” because even with their diplomas and degrees they cannot find work.
  • And on the other hand, every attempt at commercially viable small-scale farming seems to fail.

“Why do you always have such sensationalist headlines? Is it the only way you can sell your newspapers?”

That is a question journalists have to contend with all the time.

Well, it is true enough that a sensational headline helps to sell newspapers. But these are actually rare. What is far more common is a headline which gets to the heart of what is wrong with our country.

 
 

Before I give an example of what these very insightful headlines look like, first, a little history.

At the time of Independence, a great priority was for indigenous Kenyans to engage in profitable commercial agriculture. For before that, Africans could only engage in subsistence farming: It’s the “white settlers” who were given a racial monopoly on commercial farming.

I would argue that the deepest yearning of many Africans was to learn to be like these white settlers: To be able to farm as productively as they did, albeit on much smaller farms. For the settlers had most assuredly led a very enviable life, and apparently supported it purely by commercial farming.

So the prospect of bucolic bliss – working hard on your small farm and earning enough to sustain a “decent” lifestyle – has long been a key component of the “Kenyan dream” for the African majority. Even those who belong to the learned professions usually have this in mind at the core of their retirement plan: To end up on a farm that makes money.

But this dream of rural prosperity has proved to be singularly elusive for the past five decades since Independence. And here I come to my first headline from about a month ago: Ndengu glut leaves farmers stuck with 500,000 unsold bags.

The question to ask here is, by what road does a young Kenyan end up as a trained teacher? And the answer would be that even if we assume that primary school education is free, then there must surely have been at least eight years during which the parents of this young person struggled to pay, first school fees, then college fees.

The background to this is that farmers in Kitui county and its environs had been encouraged to grow this legume, which we know locally as ndengu, and which is otherwise known as green grams, in the expectation of a vast export market in Pakistan and India where this ndengu is as much a basic food of the average citizen as beans and maize are here in Kenya.

The details of why these many bags of green grams could not be sold to Pakistan or India are rather unconvincing. It seems to me that this was simply a project that was not well thought through.

 
 

But all the same, it falls into a long-established pattern of local farmers as well as elected leaders in many parts of the country making every effort to try and identify some kind of cash crop that has the potential to bring in a decent income.

And this ndengu is only the latest failure in the many serious efforts to make small-scale farming profitable.

So, if you cannot make a living off the land, then of course you must seek employment. This is best done by embarking on some kind of professional career.

And here I come to my second newspaper headline from around the same time: 300,000 trained teachers jobless, TSC report shows.

The question to ask here is, by what road does a young Kenyan end up as a trained teacher? And the answer would be that even if we assume that primary school education is free, then there must surely have been at least eight years during which the parents of this young person struggled to pay, first school fees, then college fees.

All this would have been done in the belief that the parents were effectively taking out an insurance policy against their own destitution in old age. That their son or daughter who was a schoolteacher would in time take care of them.

So when on the one hand 300,000 such sons and daughters end up “back on the farm” because even with their diplomas and degrees they cannot find work.

And on the other hand, every attempt at commercially viable small-scale farming seems to fail.

Then what hope can the average Kenyan have that this country still has a path to the middle class for those who work hard?