AFRICAN JOURNEY. Kenyan farmers race to keep up with demands of a growing population

THE hillsides and valleys at the base of Kenya's cloud-shrouded Abedare Mountains are a pastiche of corn patches, banana groves, coffee plants, gum trees, and huts. Every square inch of land, it seems, is being cultivated. Even the roadside embankments have been planted with crops or are used to graze cows.

Zachary M., a primary school teacher and part-time artist, leads the way along the red dirt path to his shamba , a small peasant holding. After Kenya gained independence, he says, the nearby Roman Catholic mission, which used to own this land, decided to distribute it among the villagers.

They agreed to give each family 0.9 acres.

Zachary laughs. ``That's what each of us got. Except those who made the boundaries; they gave themselves a bit more.''

Like his neighbors, Zachary grows corn, ham, potatoes, and beans. He also keeps a cow and a goat in a small paddock next to his wooden, two-room nyumba (hut). But the shamba is not enough to support him and his family of 10; it only supplements his 900-shilling-a-month salary, one third of which goes toward the education of his children.

Even though he is barely able to make ends meet, Zachary would like to have more children. ``Fifteen, if possible,'' he says. ``You see, I am a follower of the Pope and we like big families.''

In many ways, Zachary and his shamba epitomize two of Kenya's most pressing problems. For many men, -- whether a hotel employee in Nairobi or a coffee plantation worker in Nyeri -- owning one's own piece of land, no matter how small, is an obsession.

A shamba means security, food, and something to pass on to your children.

But it is an obsession that, in the long run, could spell disaster, given this country's rapidly growing population -- which is expected to double to 40 million by the year 2,000 -- and its limited land resources. Eighty-five percent of Kenya's farms are small-scale holdings with an average of less than three acres; most of the holders of such holdings hardly grow enough food to feed themselves -- let alone the country.

``Small holdings are simply not conducive to surplus food production,'' says one Western agricultural specialist. The burden of feeding the country lies mainly on the remaining 15 percent -- on the medium- and large-scale farms owned by the state or private enterprise. And observers say that only a small percentage of these -- the independent farmers, most of them white -- provide the bulk of Kenya's sustenance.

For a country whose mainstay is agriculture, there is urgent need to review policy. It needs to halt further fragmentation of the land, curb population growth, and provide incentives to encourage more efficient farming.

``Theoretically, the government has elaborated a sound food policy,'' continued the specialist, ``but they have yet to activate it. They are dragging their feet over what are admittedly difficult political and economic decisions. As it is, Kenya is barely self-sufficient. It's like a cork bobbing on water which could easily go under.''

At independence, the division of numerous formerly white-owned farms among Africans was a political necessity. But it was economically catastrophic. But although it is politically impossible to reverse that division today, there are alternatives to halt further fragmentation.

``But the big problem is how to get people off the land,''said Joseph Waweru of the Kenya National Farmer's Union in Nakuru. ``We are not a industrialized country, so there is not much one can do until jobs can be found. It all depends if we can hold out that long.''

Kenya has a lot going for it. In my travels over the past few months, I was astounded by its varied terrain. There are no fewer than six climatic zones ranging from the baking wastelands of the north to the cool cedar forests of Mount Kenya and the humid coconut groves of the coast. It is often hard to believe that one is not in western England, the south of France, or the hills of Tuscany.

Barely one-fifth is arable with sufficient rainfall to grow crops. But what grows is incredible. Virtually anything from apples and oranges to tea, wheat, and macadamia nuts. Another fifth is semi-arid with 15 inches of rainfall or less, but could be opened up through irrigation and modern farming methods. The rest -- three-fifths of the country -- is desert.

But in the Nakuru region in central Kenya, farmers like Johnson Muchiri, an African, and his neighbor, Bruce Nightingale, a white Kenyan, are demonstrating their country's real agricultural potential. They feel that, given the right conditions, Kenya could again become a prime food producer, as it was during the colonial era.

Muchiri, who was born on the European farm in Kenya's Rift Valley where his father worked, has been managing the Kisima Dairy Farm near Njoro for the past 10 years for its owner, a former police commissioner. Muchiri is the sort of new African farmer this country needs. ``We haven't been in the red once since I came here,'' he says, taking me on a tour of the farm.

Located along a rustic hillside remniscent of New England's Vermont, Kisima covers some 1,000 acres. Here Muchiri grows wheat and corn, and here he raises his 350 prize-winning dairy cattle. Last year was a bad one because of a devastating drought that brought parts of Kenya close to famine. ``But I still managed to bring in a crop.'

Like their counterparts in Europe and North America, Kenya's commercial farmers complain bitterly of poor pricing policies. The consumer, they say, is being favored at the expense of the producer. But unlike the others, Kenyan farmers do not benefit from the same sorts of subsidies and incentives. Kenya's limitations as a develop- ing country are partly to blame. According to many analysts, so is government corruption, mismanagement, and lack of foresight.

``I am not trying to criticize them,'' Muchiri says, ``but the government should reconize what the top priotrities are. I know we need hospitals and education, but we have to eat, too.''

Prior to independence in 1963, Kenya's 4,000 European farmers, many living in the choice white highlands, were regarded as among the best in Africa. With black majority rule, Kenya's first prime minister, Jomo Kenyatta, recognized the economic importance of these farmers and asked them to stay. But many of them saw no future here and left -- or were forced to leave because of social pressures.

Among those who stayed is Bruce Nightingale, who, with his family, runs the beautiful 1,600-acre Sasumua Estate just down the road from Kisima. Bruce's brother, Geoffrey, runs a similar farm several miles away, but the two work closely together.

There are still some 400 white farmers on medium- and large-scale farms in Kenya today. But most are managers on company- or African- owned estates. Only a few, like the Nightingales (whose grandfather settled in Kenya in 1906), actually hold their own land. Because of political sensitivities, they like to keep a low profile. ``We just box on and farm like stink,'' one farmer says.

Among foreign agricultual advisors in Nairobi, Nightingale has the reputation of running ``one of the best multifarming operations in the country.''

In many respects, he is a ``renaissance'' farmer who dislikes waste and seeks to utilize his land in the most efficient and imaginative way possible. The Nightingales grow wheat, oats, soybeans and garden vegetables. They also maintain a herd of Friesian dairy cows, breed race horses, and keep sheep, chickens, bees, and rabbits.

``We're living on the pig's back,'' Bruce Nightingale says, referring to the quality of life and land in Kenya. ``There is an incredible potential here and a lot to be done. I think the government is beginning to realize that and is moving in the right direction.''

One thing Nightingale and other farmers would like the government to do is to drop high import duties -- which run from 70 to 200 percent -- on agricultural machinery, spare parts, and other technology.

``This is a severe handicap,'' Nightingale says. ``We haven't bought a new piece of machinery in nearly 18 years. Or a new car in 12. Kenyan farmers have the means to make this country into a major agricultural exporter, but we have to keep on the top, too.''

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