On Friday last week, I spent my day touring Gwassi constituency within Suba sub-county in Homa Bay. Gwassi is a land of hills and valleys. Although the place looks semi-arid, its virgin lands are fertile. It is also the home of Ruma National Park, which, I noticed, didn’t have visitors.
Kanyamwa escarpment, a spectacle in itself, opens to the scintillating beauty of Wiga and Lambwe valleys that lie below. The expansive valleys are virtually without habitation.
Residents here prefer living along the slopes of the many hills, as valleys are deemed to be dangerous due to occasional flash floods that make them inhabitable. With a little ingenuity, more could be done to optimise resource utilisation.
God, in his wisdom, placed the hills, valleys and rivers within the vicinity of each other. Our role was to put together these pieces of a natural jig-saw puzzle and produce a powerful solution to the twin problems of unemployment and food insecurity.
The remoteness of Gwassi, coupled with long-term neglect, have conspired to deny its people the human wisdom to trap the abundant rain water that violently courses through the valleys during the rainy seasons, dam the rivers, pump the water up the hills and use gravity to irrigate the region.
Unfortunately, we make assumptions our rural folks can do the right thing. Time and again we know this is not happening. Lacking in exposure, rural folks need help to make the right decisions and discard archaic methods of doing things.
I was with Prof Geoffrey Kironchi, a soil scientist at the University of Nairobi, Moses Oyier, a doctoral student in agriculture at Egerton, Ms Teresah Wafullah, an agricultural economist, now working with Mea Fertiliser Company, and our driver, Roy Gad.
As we drove down these fields of wealth, we agreed that what Kenya needs most is devolved knowledge to deal with the crippling poverty of our people.
Low productivity, which rarely features in any of our discourse, is perhaps the foundation of our poverty.
Although we are almost two decades into the 21st century, more than 95 per cent of our farmers cannot tell you how to maximise output. Further, they often have no clue how much one acre of any crop will yield. One might conclude that they are engaged in gambling, not farming.
In Gwassi, the spacing of maize during planting undermines yields. The metrics they use to dispose of their maize harvest is also archaic and confines these farmers into perpetual poverty. To sell a 90-kilogramme bag of maize, a farmer measures this by a random assessment of what three donkeys can carry before the maize cobs are shelled.
University of Nairobi scientists have come up with a new fertiliser, Biofix, that it licensed to Mea. It is not randomly used like other fertilisers. Instead, it is applied according to the needs of the soil. Such soils are analysed before the right mix that is likely to give optimal production is recommended.
Politicians have ignored this basic scientific knowledge as we often import one-size-fits-all fertiliser for the entire country. There is wisdom in respecting science and the knowledge of local scientists. Until we effectively deal with the policy, research and farming industry axis, development will be hampered and poverty will persist.
This problem is magnified at the Kimira Oluch Small Holder Development Project along the way to Gwassi that is funded by the government to assist farmers grow rice. Although the project is ongoing, there is virtually no rice growing here.
Instead, residents have found it convenient to use the canals to wash clothes or graze their cows on the “rice fields.” Poor communication has undermined the project.
Farmers needed help to understand the seed varieties and planting techniques, and perhaps get incentives to divert their attention from fishing activities in the adjacent waters of Victoria. We must stop making assumptions that local folks will see opportunities in the same way policymakers do.
We need reforms in our rural development strategy. There must be a tripartite agreement between universities, the governments and rural communities on utilising research students to solve practical problems.
We must emphasise applied research into many of the rural problems including productivity, communication and business models as well as socio-economic development.
The answers to sustainable development will depend on how we utilise the abundant resources we have. The usual Kenyan debate of whether we are facing East or West is a non-issue. Let us look inwards and exploit that which God has given to us.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.