In Kenya they `farm like stink'. But rising costs threaten small-farm traditions

The hillsides and valleys at the base of Kenya's cloud-shrouded Abedare Mountains are a pastiche of corn fields, 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 path to his shamba, a small peasant holding. With uhuru (independence), he explains, the nearby Roman Catholic mission that once owned this land decided to distribute it among the villagers, himself included.

It was agreed to give each family 0.9 acres. He 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, yams, 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 merely supplements his $56-a-month salary, one-third of which goes toward his children's education.

Even though he is barely able to make ends meet, Zachary would like 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: an obsession with owning a piece of land, no matter how small; and a rapidly growing population, expected to double to 40 million by the year 2000.

A shamba means security, food, and something to pass on to one's children. But 85 percent of Kenya's farms are small-scale holdings with an average of less than three acres. Most farmers grow barely 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 keeping the country fed lies mainly with the remaining 15 percent, that is, medium- and large-scale farms owned by the state or private enterprise. And even then, according to observers, it is only a small group of independent farmers, most of them white, who provide the bulk of Kenya's sustenance.

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

``Theoretically, the government has elaborated a sound food policy,'' says 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 bottle bobbing on water -- it could easily go under.''

At independence, the dividing up of numerous white farms among Africans was a political necessity. But it was economically catastrophic, since the skills of the white farmers seldom accompanied the reallocated farm.

Although politically the division is almost certainly irreversible today, the government can take measures to halt further fragmentation.

``But the big problem is how to get people off the land,'' says Joseph Waweru of the Kenya National Farmer's Union in Nakuru. ``We are not an 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.''

To make things more difficult, barely one-fifth of the country is able to support farming. What does grow in that one-fifth 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 remaining three-fifths is desert.

Farmers like Johnson Muchiri, an African, and his neighbor, Bruce Nightingale, a white Kenyan from the Nakeru region in central Kenya, demonstrate their country's agricultural potential. They also feel that, given the right conditions, Kenya could again become the prime producer it was during the colonial era.

Mr. Muchiri, born on a European-owned farm in the Rift Valley where his father was a worker, has been managing Kisima Dairy Farm near Njoro for the past 10 years. He is the sort of new African farmer Kenya needs. ``We haven't been in the red once since I came here,'' he says, taking me on a tour of the farm.

On a rustic hillside setting looking remarkably like Vermont, Kisima farm covers some 1,000 acres where Muchiri grows wheat and corn and raises his 350 prize-winning dairy cattle. Last year was bad because of a devastating drought that brought parts of Kenya close to famine. ``But I still managed to bring in a crop.''

As with 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 sort of subsidies and incentives. Kenya's limitations as a developing 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 recognize what the top priorities are. I know we need hospitals and education, but we have to eat, too.''

Before independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya's 4,000 European settler-farmers, many living in the choice highlands were regarded as among the best in Africa. With black majority rule, Jomo Kenyatta, the nation's first leader, recognized their economic importance and asked them to stay. But many saw no future and left or were forced to leave because of pressures.

Among those who stayed was Mr. Nightingale, who, with his family, runs the beautiful 1,600-acre Sasumua estate just down the road from Kisima. On a clear day you can see 200 miles right down to the other side of the Rift. Bruce's brother Geoffrey runs a similarly sized farm nearby, but the two work closely together.

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

Among foreign agricultual advisers 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 wastage and seeks to use his land in the most efficient and imaginative manner possible. The Nightingales grow wheat, oats, soybeans, and garden vegetables, but also a 200-head pedigreed and registered dairy herd of Friesians. They also breed race horses and keep sheep, chickens, bees, and rabbits.

``We're living on the pig's back,'' Nightingale said, referring to the quality of life 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.''

Nightingale and other farmers would like the government to drop high import duties anywhere from 70 percent to 200 percent, on agricultural machinery, spare parts, and technology.

Referring to the high price of machinery he says, ``This is a severe handicap. We haven't bought a new piece of machinery in nearly 18 years. Or a new car in 12. Kenya 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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