Climate-linked drought pushes Kenyan farmers to sell land


A growing number of farmers in parts of Kenya’s eastern and north-eastern regions are selling their land and moving to urban areas in search of alternative livelihoods as a severe drought believed linked to climate change makes farming increasing difficult.

The trend is taking a toll on Kenya’s economy and, if it continues, could leave areas of once valuable farming land uncultivated, potentially threatening the country’s ability to produce enough food for its population, agro-economists say.

Kenya is again suffering extended drought, following an earlier severe drought in 2009, according to the country’s meteorological department, and experts say the conditions do not bode well for the country’s struggling farmers, 80 percent of whom depend on rain for their crops.

“Pastoralists are already losing their livestock in north-eastern Kenya. Let’s hope for the best,” said Matayo Indeje, an associate research scientist at Kenya’s meteorological department, speaking at a conference in Nairobi.

December, January and February tend to be the hottest and most humid months in East Africa but in recent years, average temperatures have increased. That is destroying a growing share of crops and leaving many cash-strapped farmers with little choice except to sell their land and try to find work in urban areas.

Alternative employment

John Mwanzia, 52, is one such farmer who felt forced to seek out a new income.

Mwanzia sold his four-acre farm in Mwingi, in eastern Kenya, in December last year and moved to Nairobi. He used the $13,000 from the sale of his farm to start a tailoring business, renting a tailoring shop in the capital.

“In the area I come from, I was losing large amounts of crops year after year. I have very little confidence in farming since the returns are so little,” he said, speaking from his new sewing shop, piled with materials.

Until several years ago, Mwanzia was producing enough food both to feed his family and to sell to pay other expenses, he said. But worsening drought, believed linked to change, ended that, he said.

Today Mwanzia has yet to reap great rewards from his new business – but he has earned enough to pay his two children’s public school fees, which can run between $50 and $75 per term.

“That makes me happy,” the former farmer said. But, he added, he sees the sale of his land as a personal setback, and still hopes to return to farming one day.

“The government should help people like me to avoid sinking into poverty since land in this part of the world is an asset,” he said. “If my business begins to do well, I will buy back some land and settle down in a few years to come.”

Anti-drought programme struggle

As drought forces farmers to sell their land, the country’s ability to feed its population could be at risk, said Juma Oyier, a Nairobi based agro-economist.

While land is often sold on to other farmers, there is often a break in crop production in between owners, he said.

“Even if the land is bought immediately … it could take the new farmer several months to get used to his new land. It takes a lot of time to plan what crops to plant,” Oyier said.

To help struggling farmers facing drought, the government began a livestock purchasing programme in November, offering to buying herds at market rates from farmers and pastoralists struggling to take care of them.

However, the programme so far has failed to find adequate funding, raising a third of the $200 million it needs from donors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Kenyan officials said.

The government is instead providing water to farmers and pastoralists in drought-stricken areas to help keep animals alive, hoping to minimise losses of cattle. Officials fear the program may not have enough water to survive prolonged drought, however.

Kenya has some 7 million cattle, 31 million goats, 500,000 donkeys and 3 million camels, according to government estimates.

“Some pastoralists are walking all the way to Nairobi for several weeks with their cattle herds just to find a place to graze. It’s a sign that things are bad and immediate action should be taken. Even pasture is hard to find when climate change does so much damage,” Oyier said.

“About ten years ago, drought was not as severe as it has been recently. This is the cost of messing with Mother Nature,” he said.

As much as $2.5 billion may have been lost from Kenya’s economy over the past two years as a result of changing weather patterns linked to climate change, World Bank statistics show.

Throwaway prices

A share of Kenya’s drought-affected farmers are trying to survive drought periods by selling off parts but not all of their land.

John Bronson owned a 30,000-acre plot in central Kenya but sold some 4,000 acres of it in October last year.

“There is very little pasture for my animals on this large expanse of land. Maintaining the land during spells of drought is very expensive,” said Bronson, in an interview at his property. “At least part of the money I made from the land sale is being used to buy livestock feeds. I find it a good way of dealing with the drought.”

“I plant a lot of food crops on my land and a lot of it is irrigated,” he added. “It is expensive – I have to buy expensive machines and the water itself is costly.”

As a result, “I am thinking of selling a few more acres in the near future,” he said.

Despite the drought, land prices in some areas – particularly those with low crime rates – have risen due to demand. But some farmers have had to sell their land at rock-bottom prices to meet urgent family costs.

John Katuve, 59, from eastern Kenya, sold a prime five-acre plot of land near a market place for $17,000, well below its value of more than $23,000, out of desperation.

“I had to pay college fees for my two sons who graduated last year. I expect them to help me when they’re able to support themselves,” Katuve said.

In other places, farmland has depreciated in value, a factor real-estate companies attribute to worsening drought.

Economists and scientists say climate change is playing a growing role in farmers’ decisions to sell their land, although they say it is difficult to know with certainty all of the reasons farmers are selling.

“There are land sales in drought-affected areas, especially in north-eastern Kenya. Over the last three months many have sold their freehold properties and moved to Nairobi and Mombasa. Others just desert their land and move back to it when the drought season ends,” said Muliro Shilanyanga, a consultant economist in Nairobi.

Real Estate companies profit

There has also been an increase in new landowners in drought-stricken parts of the country, according to advertisements published in real-estate magazines.

Farms ranging from as small as just one quarter of an acre to as much as 31,000 acres have been sold by leading Kenyan real-estate companies.

One employee at Hass Consult, a real-estate brokerage, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his company had registered large profits from sales of agricultural land, with the company posting its highest sales figures in recent times in the last quarter of 2010.

Under Kenya’s new constitution, which came into effect in August 2010, the ownership of agricultural land switched from a leasehold basis to freehold – a move designed to give farmers a greater stake in land. Freehold means the farmer has total ownership of the land rather than leasing it from the government for a set number of years.