Kenya to reverse ‘unproductive arid lands’ narrative

Saturday February 23 2013

Increasing pressure on arable land, disparities in human development indicators and the recent discovery of oil in Turkana are among factors that have influenced the new focus on the north. Photo/FILE

Kenya’s often-quoted first development blueprint, Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965, recommended that “development money should be invested where it will yield the largest increase in net output. This approach will clearly favour the development of areas with abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities, and people receptive to and active in development”.

Nearly 50 years later, a new policy on development of northern Kenya and other arid lands is seeking to reverse the narrative, proposing a range of initiatives that could see the country turning to the arid, hitherto considered unproductive and less-endowed, for growth.

Increasing pressure on arable land that is less than 20 per cent of Kenya’s land surface, glaring disparities in human development indicators and the recent discovery of large amounts of oil in Turkana in the arid northwest of the country are among factors that have influenced the new focus on the north.

“The National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands” Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012, proposes to strengthen national integration, cohesion and equity by building mutual understanding and respect between the people of northern Kenya and other Kenyans, using the Equalisation Fund created under the new Constitution to address inequities and ensuring investments and economic activities in the region benefit the local communities.

In the case of Turkana, the policy would require that a fixed percentage of proceeds from the oil goes directly to the local community.

Nearly 43 per cent of the people in arid areas take more than one hour to reach water, even during the rainy season. In the dry season, 24 per cent take more than two hours.


Development indicators like child and maternal mortality are worst in the arid and semi arid areas and 18 of Kenya’s 20 poorest constituencies — where 74-97 per cent of people live below the poverty line — are in northern Kenya.

The highest rates of poverty are among those who are no longer directly involved in pastoralism, particularly those without livestock who depend on casual labour or petty trade in towns, said the policy.

With the proposal to increase investments in the arid and semi arid areas that are home to about 14 million people, more than a third of the country’s population, Kenya is hoping to be one of the countries that have successfully transformed dry areas into productive land and to join the league of countries like Israel — which has developed solutions to turn its sand-covered land into productive vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards.

Israel’s agricultural scientists have revolutionised the way farmers irrigate and store crops, protect plants from drought and disease, keep pests away naturally, and purify and reuse wastewater.

Recently, Kenya kicked off the planned opening of an alternative economic corridor in northern Kenya with the launch of the newly-built Isiolo Airport.

The Ksh900 million ($10.4 million) facility is meant to upgrade the airport to international status, firmly anchoring work on the planned transformation of Isiolo into the resort city envisaged in Kenya’s development blueprint — Vision 2030.

Isiolo, located on the edge of agriculturally rich Meru County, is the epicentre of the multi-billion shilling effort to open up northern Kenya, landlocked Ethiopia and South Sudan with the building of a standard gauge railway line, a highway and an oil pipeline that runs from the Lamu port to South Sudan.

“We are upgrading the airport’s capacity and services to international status for the benefit of the region’s economy,” said Kenya Airports Authority director general Stephen Gichuki during the launch.

The policy paper proposes the development of an integrated safe and efficient road, rail and air transport network in the region, prioritising transport corridors linking Kenya to key markets in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia, and beyond them to the Middle East.

The larger Northern Corridor project, which includes construction of road and rail links, an oil pipeline from the Kenya Coast to South Sudan and Ethiopia and the Lamu port, are part of the infrastructure development projects.

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“The location of the region and its social-cultural attributes make it well positioned to benefit from surplus capital in the Gulf, one of the fastest growing region globally,” said Minister for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands Mohamed Elmi.

Another key investment would be in livestock production which would create about 400,000 jobs once the arid and semi-arid areas are linked to the growing meat-deficit areas, given that arid and semi-arid areas comprise 70 per cent of the country’s livestock herd.

Government data shows the contribution of livestock to the national agricultural output is in the region of Ksh 320 billion ($3.7 billion), only slightly less than that of crops and horticulture.

As Mr Elmi notes, decades of biased distribution of public investments, with resources being directed towards the so-called high potential areas of crop production, overlooked the wealth of lowland livestock-based economies — creating the deep inequalities in human development in the then Northern Frontier District.

“For many years, this statement guided the direction of government resources, with the results being that social and physical infrastructure of the arid districts was neglected.

The ministry now plans to set up export processing zones in Isiolo, Garissa and Lamu counties, where livestock farming and processing of livestock products will be the main activities.

The new policy also proposes to diversify livelihood and reduce overreliance on livestock in arid and semi arid areas. For example, there is a growing interest in production and marketing of natural resources such as renewable energy from both solar and wind, sand and gravel for construction, soda ash, gums, resins, gemstones and medicinal plants.

In August last year, Kenya launched a Ksh20 billion ($232 million) project covering 10, 000 hectares of Turkana dry land, expected to improve food security and the nutrition of the local population.

The government entered an agreement with the Israeli government to provide technical support to the development of the Todonyang irrigation project and dry land agriculture.

Proponents of the new policy say opening up of northern Kenya will generate more demand for Kenyan goods and services.

Economists attribute the poverty in arid and semi arid areas to the failure of the benefits of recent growth to trickle down to households in the region, leaving their incomes lagging far behind those of other areas with better education, economic activities, infrastructure and healthcare services.

The latest findings on the state of affairs in Kenya’s arid and semi arid lands is expected to stoke the old debate as to whether the recent economic growth has had any impact on Kenya’s proverbial mountain of poverty that has left more than half of the population in the bottom income band.

With the new policy, Kenya is seeking to addresses three distinct policy challenges. How to close the development gap between northern Kenya and the rest of the country; how to protect and promote institutions that are productive like pastoralism; and how to ensure food and nutrition security across the arid lands.

ALSO READ: Scramble on for land in Kenya’s neglected north

Policy challenges

“By addressing these three policy challenges, the government will release the latent potential of the arid and semi-arid lands, in livestock, tourism and renewable energy, and its strategic location as Kenya’s bridgehead to the markets of Northern Africa and the Middle East,” said Mr Elmi.

Still, most East African countries have for decades viewed arid and pastoral areas as net consumers of national wealth that offered poor prospects of return on investments.

Thus arid areas dominated by pastoralists have been side-lined in decision-making processes in East Africa. The result is chronic underinvestment in pastoralist communities across the region, and the consequent increase in vulnerability.

In Uganda arid areas, occupied by pastoralists constitute 60 per cent of the country and 22 per cent of the population, around 5.3 million people.

In Tanzania, arid and semi-arid areas comprise 30–60 per cent, with the pastoral economy being the basis of the livelihood of almost four million people, about 10 per cent of the population.

The Tanzanian government has set up a Department of Pastoral Systems Development that has been operating in the Ministry of Livestock Development and Fisheries since 2006, because the pastoralists dominate the livestock sector, owning 99 per cent of the livestock, and the sector contributes 6.1 per cent to the national GDP.

The Ministry of State for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands was created in April 2008 in recognition that the region has not enjoyed the same level of development as the rest of the country.

But how will Kenya’s ambitious plan be implemented?

“It is important that dialogue is created between public and private sectors to help create capacity to implement the policy,” said Marjaana Sall, the European Union Deputy Head of Delegation.

The financing of development projects in Asal areas includes government, development partners, private sector, the civil society, even though the former MP for Turkana Central, Ekwee Ethuro, complained that budgetary allocation for the ministry has been reducing.

In 2009/2010, the ministry was given Ksh 3.5 billion ($40.6 million), but this was reduced to Ksh 3.09 billion ($34.8 million) in the 2010/2011 budget.

In the financial year 2012/13, the ministry was allocated Ksh 2.34 billion ($27.2 million) for development and Ksh 629 million ($7.3 million) for recurrent expenditure.

International development partners like Danida, the European Union, Global Environmental Fund (GEF), DfID, the World Bank and the WFP have been actively funding various projects.