Rural to urban brain drain hurting growth

At a recent University of Nairobi graduation ceremony, former vice chancellor, Prof George Magoha lamented about the lack of doctors in Siaya yet it is home to doctors and professors.

Indeed, Siaya has the highest concentration of doctors and professors in the country but its hospitals have no gynaecologists to help expectant mothers.

The brain drain from rural to urban areas is a problem that affects virtually every county except the ones that neighbour big cities.

It is not just the flight of doctors that undermines rural development, virtually all other sectors are bleeding that even agriculture, the backbone of the economy, is suffering from lack of extension officers in rural areas.

The problem keeps getting worse considering the fact that regions that benefit from the gains of brain drain continue to outperform other rural areas.


Majority of agricultural experts request to be posted within Nairobi or counties that are around the capital leading to a higher concentration of these experts in the city and its environs and, by extension, giving these regions a competitive advantage over other counties.

A research study done by Egerton University’s agricultural policy think-tank, Tegemeo Institute, established that dairy farming in Githunguri, Kiambu, is at least six times more profitable than comparable (zero-grazing) smallholder dairy farming elsewhere in the country.

Although a leading economist attributed this performance to transport costs, the true findings as per the institute were as a result of “better efficiency in production in the area.

Farmers affiliated to Githunguri Dairy Co-operative benefit from extension advice offered through the co-operative. The average price of a litre of milk was highest in Githunguri.

Githunguri’s proximity to Nairobi gives the area an advantage as most of the milk from the area, both raw and processed, has an expansive market in the city.

In addition, competition for milk from various buyers who flock the area positively affects price.”

The recent tea bonus is one other example where factories in central Kenya regions had a higher payout than those from other parts of the country.

Farmers at Gathuthi tea factory earned Sh26 per kilo, compared to farmers in Ogembo who earned Sh8.50 per kilo of tea leaves yet the state of the roads is similar in both areas.

Some academics may argue that people from central Kenya are more resilient. This means that the social structures in central are different from other regions.

Institutional school of thought as espoused by Prof Scott Richard would say they have attained a high degree of resilience composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to their social life.

Central Kenya’s proximity to Nairobi gives the region a competitive advantage and over time they have benefited from what I call residual benefits of colonisation.

These institutions, let me call them behaviours, Prof Scott says, are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts.

Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localised interpersonal relationships.

For example, commercialisation of an idea is more prevalent in central Kenya than say Trans Nzoia. It does not mean that Trans Nzoia will not get to the level of Githunguri, for example.

They must build their own supportive rules, ethics, regulations and other supportive elements. Unfortunately, the brain drain to urban areas, mainly to Nairobi, does not help the situation.

The question is how does Ogembo tea factory import the practices of Gathuthi tea factory? In today’s practices, Ogembo would send their directors for a useless benchmarking exercise.

There is no learning in such a visit. What needs to be done is to second a few officers from Ogembo to Gathuthi for at least one year.

When they go back, they would have learnt not just the practices but the organisational culture, the discipline, prevailing rules, regulations and ethics.

They then must be allowed to impose these behaviours on the Ogembo farmers.

The rate at which farmers earn from their produce is a function of information that is available and the capacity to analyse that information in such a manner that the farmers can ask the right questions with respect to their interest.

But when we move away from rural areas, there exists an information lacuna that others leverage to exploit the farmers.

To advance analytics around rural cost of operation, it is imperative to compare these costs with that of leading private enterprises. This cannot be done if rural areas continue to lose its best minds to urban areas.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.