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Why unchecked land subdivision threatens Kenya’s food security


A farmer ploughs at Kaaboi in Turbo, Uasin Gishu County on January 28, 2021. FILE PHOTO | NMG



  • Agriculture is Kenya’s economic mainstay that employs 80 percent of the workforce.
  • Experts and policymakers have singled out land sub-division as one of the threats to the sustainability of the critical sector.
  • However, they blame population explosion, financial woes and a lack of clear policy framework on land ownership for the continued land division.

Agriculture is Kenya’s economic mainstay that employs 80 percent of the workforce.

Experts and policymakers have singled out land sub-division as one of the threats to the sustainability of the critical sector.

However, they blame population explosion, financial woes and a lack of clear policy framework on land ownership for the continued land division, which threatens food security.

While the Constitution directs that Parliament should have a provision for minimum and maximum acreage in respect of private land. However, efforts to enact the law have not borne any fruits.

In Trans Nzoia, the acreage under agriculture is currently 157,000 hectares out of which, 106,000 hectares is under maize, according to the county data.

Agriculture executive Mary Nzomo recalls that about five and 10 years ago, the average farm size was five acres in Kenya’s breadbasket. This has, however, reduced to between 0.5 and 2.5 acres.

“This is likely to reduce further in the future to below 1.5 acres due to population explosion and sub-division of customary land. Between five and 10 years ago, we had good tree cover on farms, which guaranteed reliable rainfall and harvest. Today, climate change is with us and at least 30 percent loss is expected in the North Rift this year due to unreliable rainfall experienced during the critical growth period for both maize and beans,” she says.

The county official says despite the existence of a land use policy under the Ministry of Land and Physical Planning, its implementation and enforcement hinders the controlled land sub-division.

“The policy dictates that agricultural land should not be sub-divided to below five acres. Our large-scale farms should also be ring-fenced to safeguard seed production in the country. As a department, we have been encouraging farmers with small parcels of land to grow short-term high-value crops and keep small stock like poultry and dairy goats to get more value out of their land as opposed to planting maize,” says the county executive.

National Assembly Committee on Agriculture chairperson Silas Tiren attributed increased land sub-division to the poor market linkages and an influx of imports due to trade treaties with other countries. This has in turn resulted in high cost of production and low market prices for local produce.

The legislator said it was time to identify and protect areas where the land subdivision is rife to boost food production.

“As a country, we import 20 to 30 percent maize and about 70 to 80 percent wheat every year yet we have farmers who can produce. What we need to give our farmers is incentives to address the marketing challenges to discourage them from subdividing their land,” says Mr Tiren who is also Moiben MP.

“If possible, whenever there is a change in land ownership, it should be transferred as a whole (same size) so that it can continue to be used for agricultural purposes and not be divided into small plots...the last time, a proposal was presented to the public, most people mistook that it was meant to bar them from selling their land, which was not true but Parliament is open for any petition on the same.”

Mr Tiren said there is a need for a policy framework to protect local farmers and reverse the trend.

“We are currently pushing to have a policy so that we have tariffs to control agricultural imports. When there is high local production, we can use these tariffs to dictate the amount of imports we can allow into the country and if we don’t have enough maize we can remove the tariffs cushion our local farmers,” said the lawmaker.

Governors in the North Rift region have also pressed for the enactment of legislation prescribing the minimum acreage.

Under North Rift Economic Bloc (Noreb), Nandi governor Stephen Sang and his Uasin Gishu counterpart Jackson Mandago revived the controversial debate on capping the least size of land that one can own, which has been resisted for years with critics arguing it disadvantages small-scale farmers.

Mr Mandago said devolved units need to have the mandate over the land management to ensure food security.

He says the practice risks Kenya’s economic growth as agriculture is the biggest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and food security.

“I want to appeal the National assembly to amend the Lands Act to allow county governments to have mandates on land sub-division. We are also considering a Bill — Agricultural Land — at the county assembly which will ensure no farming land is subdivided into plots,” said the governor on June 24.

Turkana governor Josphat Nanok and his Elgeyo-Marakwet counterpart Alex Tolgos said there is a need to scale up productivity through full commercialisation of agriculture.

“In Turkana, most land is community land but how do we determine land use for farming and livestock or pastoralism. About 60 percent of residents keep livestock for subsistence but we need to empower our communities to engage in the venture as a business,” said Mr Nanok.

The Kenya Seed Company has also warned that land subdivision poses a threat to seed production.

Acting managing director Fred Oloibe disclosed that the firm had been forced to adopt irrigated farming to mitigate the shrinking arable land.

“Sub-division of land is affecting the growing of parent seeds but we still have some large farms in the region though we have also moved to other areas of the country. And where there is irrigation, we are establishing seed blocks. We urge our farmers not to subdivide their land because our economy depends on agriculture,” he said last week.

Dr Oloibe and Mr Tiren spoke during the launch of a greening campaign to increase forest cover in the North Rift. Kenya Seed Company distributed more than 5,000 avocado and tree seedlings to 50 groups in Moiben, Uasin Gishu.

Institute of Surveyors Kenya president Abraham Samoei blames population explosion and free-market model for complicating the implementation of land use and control regulations.

“The proposal to control land is good but implementation is difficult. Most land in the former white highlands is in private hands making it difficult for the government to dictate maximum acreage. However, the government can come up with the minimum acreage for planning purposes,” says Mr Samoei, who heads the 4,000-member institute started in 1969 and brings together professionals in the land and real estate sector.

The expert says although the provision of leases and freeholds were provided in the Kenyan laws for agriculture, it becomes difficult to manage the crucial resource since it is mostly in private hands.

In developed countries like the US and UK, existing laws prohibit subdivision of farmland ensuring there are large parcels of farmland for food production, he observed.

“Whereas in developed countries like the US their economies depend on other sectors, reducing pressure on agricultural land, in Kenya, our economy is agriculture-based leaving the owners to decide on land use,” said Mr Samoei.

minimum acreage

Previously, there have been attempts to limit the acreage through the Kenya Minimum and Maximum Land Holding Acreage Bill of 2015, which had set the minimum acreage one can own in Nandi and Uasin Gishu at one acre, and the maximum at 10 while Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet were capped at between one and 25 acres.

Turkana County was allowed up to a maximum of 1,000 acres, while the minimum acreage was set at 2.5 acres.

Other counties including Nyandarua between one and 25 acres, Nyamira (one and 10 acres), Kwale (one and 25 acres), and Kisii (one and 10 acres),

The Bill was later shelved after it elicited sharp reactions among Kenyans.

Those that criticised the proposed law said it was punitive.

Data from the National Land Commission (NLC) shows that less than a fifth of Kenyans own more than 1.5 acres (0.60 hectares) of land, while nearly 15 percent own no land at all.

John Macharia, a land expert at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, said the situation was bound to get worse.

“The 2019 census shows every year our population is growing by one million that means in next 10 years we will have 10 million more people, with increased land subdivision, where will we get food? If you replace 100 acres with real estate, that means that more than 2,500 households will lack food, meaning we need to discourage sub-division and encourage agricultural productivity,” he said.