Population growth and growing land scarcity in Kenyan households are the causes of the gradual sub-division of their land. In Kenya over time farms are getting smaller and smaller. In Kenya today, 80% of farms are relatively densely populated. Because they’re so small, few can generate enough income to keep farmers above the poverty line and most of them increasingly rely on off-farm incomes.
However, over the past ten years ago, we have started to see evidence of a major rise in the number of medium-scale, Kenyan-owned farms.
Within the past decade, the amount of agricultural produce that these farms contribute to countries’ national output has risen rapidly. In Kenya, medium-sized farms now account for roughly 40% of the country’s marketed agricultural produce.
While much remains unknown and the story is still unfolding, we believe that medium-scale farms are an important driver of rural transformation in much of Kenya – with mostly positive results.
For about ten years there’s been a prolonged surge in global food prices. This ushered in major, and much publicised, investment in Kenyan farmland by foreign investors. What happened largely under the radar were huge farmland investments by African professionals, entrepreneurs and civil servants.
The amount of land acquired by these medium-scale Kenyan farmers since 2000 far exceeds the amount acquired by foreign investors.
They are relatively wealthy and influential, often professionals, entrepreneurs or retired civil servants. Many accumulated wealth from non-farm jobs, invested in land and became either part-time or full time farmers.
Many are based in rural areas and have political or social influence with local traditional authorities. Others are urban “telephone farmers” who retain jobs in the cities, hire managers to attend to their farms and occasionally visit on weekends.
In some counties, many current medium-scale farmers started out as small-scale farmers who successfully expanded their operations.
Medium-scale farmers bring new sources of capital and know-how to African agriculture. They have in Kenya become a politically powerful group that are well represented in farm lobbies and national agricultural strategies. They have solidified Kenyan government’ commitments to support agriculture.
They get their land from traditional chiefs or by purchasing land from others, including small-scale farm households. Displaced smallholders, especially young people, tend to move off farm in search of other sources of employment.
What Are the Reasons for more Medium-Scale Farms in Kenya
First, rapid population growth, urbanization and rising incomes have contributed to massive growth in demand for food in Kenya. Kenyans with the resources to respond to this demand are doing so.
Second, many Kenyans with money and resources found farming to be a lucrative investment opportunity – especially during this sustained period of high global food prices since the mid-2000s.
Third, policy reforms in the 1990s removed major barriers to private trade and improved the conditions for private investment in Kenyan agri-food systems. One example of this was the removal of restrictions on private movement of food commodities across district borders. The effects of these reforms exploded after world food prices suddenly skyrocketed. They enabled thousands of small, medium and large-scale private firms to rapidly respond to profitable incentives.
Small-Scale farmers in Kenya
With the rise of the medium-scale farms, we expected to find that smallholders were being marginalized. But we’ve changed our views on this in light of various pieces of evidence.
First, medium-scale farms are providing access to markets and services for nearby smallholder farms. For example, many medium-scale farms have attracted tractor rental providers, who now provide mechanization services to smallholders. This allows them to farm their land with much less labour input, freeing up opportunities to work in off-farm pursuits.
Second, large trading firms are setting up buying depots in areas where there’s a high concentration of medium-scale farms. This improves market access for smallholders too.
We also found that the medium-scale farms are good for the local economy. They inject cash into the local economy through their expenditures, stimulating off-farm employment opportunities for many rural people who were formerly dependent on subsistence farming.
Medium-scale farms have also contributed to sub-Saharan Africa’s 4.6% annual rate of agricultural production growth between 2000 and 2018. This is the highest of any region in the world over this period.
While there are a lot of positives, these changes are uprooting the traditional social fabric and creating new power structures. The rise of land markets is creating a new class of landless workers who are dependent on the local non-farm economy for their livelihoods. Policy makers will need guidance on how to minimize these hardships –- protecting those who are most vulnerable as the processes of economic transformation gradually raise living standards for the majority of the population.
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