• Some Coast residents think there is a political strategy of marginalisation at play here: A conspiracy to leave the region marginalised so that it will always be at the mercy of politicians who promise to change it to win votes.
• The Galana Kulalu project is not the first to fail. Throughout the years since Independence, many projects launched at the Coast have not been successful in the long-term.
In my Op-Ed column of January 9, 2016 published in the Star titled “The injustices of white elephant projects: The Galana Kulalu Ranch”, I expressed my deep reservations about the giant irrigation project in Tana River county.
At a time when many still held high hopes for this project, I noted “far from being a benefit conferred on the region by the national government, it is actually just one more proof of the tragic marginalisation of the Coast.”
Why did I say this? I know a white elephant project when I see one.
The Coast has had a long history of agricultural projects not being successful in the long-term, but hope was reignited among residents with the launch of the Galana Kulalu project in 2014.
These hopes were, however, shattered when the estimated completion date for the project kept on being deferred. Initially, it was to run for two-and-a-half years and be completed in the first quarter of 2017.
However, the contractor, Israeli firm Green Arava, asked for an extension to 2018, a deadline that was not met either. Another extension was given until April this year and it remains to be seen if the project will be completed, especially given the wrangles between the contractor and the government side – the National Irrigation Board.
The project was a good idea but now it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that it ended up being a cash cow for a few individuals. Locals were not given ownership in the project and it failed to provide the high number of jobs, directly and indirectly, as they hoped.
To add insult to injury, the expected production from the project turned out to be about a quarter of what had been expected. This, after more than Sh5 billion has been spent on the project. How could a project to be carried out on 1.75 million acres and having the engagement of a firm from Israel – which is renowned for its success in dryland agriculture and advanced irrigation techniques – have failed?
POLITICAL STRATEGY OF MARGINALISATION
It is for reasons such as this that some Coast residents think there is a political strategy of marginalisation at play here: A conspiracy to leave the region marginalised so that it will always be at the mercy of politicians who promise to change it to win votes.
I don’t fully believe the conspiracy theory because coffee has been a loss-making crop for farmers from Central region, despite the President hailing from the area. The same goes for maize farmers, the majority of whom hail from the Rift Valley, which is the Deputy President’s home region.
However, one cannot help but wonder why the Coast perennially seems to bear the brunt of failed projects.
Last month, ODM leader Raila Odinga launched a project to clear hyacinth from Lake Victoria using a dredging vessel. The project is estimated to take about two-and-a-half years. Hyacinth has been a perennial thorn in the flesh for Nyanza, and the region seemed to have been forgotten until the March 9 handshake. I have a feeling this latest effort to clear the lake will be successful as one of the fruits of the handshake.
The Coast, on the other hand, seems to have been forgotten. The Galana Kulalu project is not the first to fail. Throughout the years since Independence, many projects launched at the Coast have not been successful in the long-term.
Let’s take a look at some of the agricultural undertakings that have been unsuccessful at the Coast.
We start with cashew nut farming, which used to be prosperous for farmers, until the collapse of the Kilifi Cashewnuts Factory, which was in fact a parastatal, and filled with state nominees. Farmers in Kilifi, Lamu and Kwale counties thereafter had no choice but to switch to other crops.
Another project which has not brought Coast farmers the kind of tidings they had hoped for is coconut farming. It was once a lucrative business with multiple products being obtained from the crop. But I challenge you to show me a single successful farmer at the Coast who grows nothing but coconuts at this point.
The situation was not helped by the fact that many cooperative societies that helped coconut farmers collapsed in the 1980s. This exposed farmers to exploitation by middlemen.
The establishment of Kenya Coconut Development Authority was an attempt to help farmers, but many opted to abandon the crop.
One would have imagined that the Coast would have benefited from coconut farming because they grow naturally in the region. There has been no such luck.
The question now begs: Are Coast residents meaningfully involved before projects are initiated? Are the leaders consulted?
More specifically, how is it that billions of shillings were spent on a single giant project known as the Galana Kulalu project, yet small-holder farmers who might just as easily have benefited from irrigation schemes (much of the coast is semi-arid) were not considered for any such funding?
Who is going to look out for the interests of the Coast? Whoever wants the support of the Coast is going to have to prove he or she will prevent any white elephant projects in the future and will fight for the region to receive meaningful ones that will improve the lives of locals.
All is not lost with Galana Kulalu. The way forward is that the Agriculture ministry must own up to its failure and apologise to the people of the region.
It should then publicly hand over the project to the Kilifi and Tana River governments, which will then involve the local communities for its revival, thereby creating jobs and the food security that it was initially meant for, not only for Coast, but the entire country.
This can be done with the participation of local professionals and outgrower farmers in the region.
The national government should also give the counties an equivalent of the amount used on the project so far about Sh5.9 billion to kickstart the revival, bearing in mind that the initial investment was lost in people’s pockets.
If nothing else, this will be a crucial first step towards correcting the historical injustices at the Coast, and providing small-scale farmers in the region who have up to now been marginalised, with an opportunity to create their own wealth through hard work.
But this hard work must be supported by the plentiful acres of land, and world-class irrigation expertise and scientific seed selection, similar to what has up to now been wasted on this monstrous white.