Japhet Kiara: Dedicated to small-scale farmers

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    Mr Japhet Kiara Photo: Mike Pflanz

After independence, one of Kenya’s first priorities was to help millions of its small-holder farmers whose ability to expand their livelihoods had been restricted under colonial rule. Japhet Kiara, a soil and water conservation expert, describes those early days and how Kenya’s vital agricultural sector then went on to develop with Swedish partnership.

After a 33-year career heading agricultural development programmes for both the Swedish and Kenyan governments, Japhet Kiara retired in February 2013 and took a long holiday to stay with his mother. Aged 83, with six cows and a smallholding growing coffee and bananas on the eastern slopes of Mt Kenya, she is still out in her fields daily, tilling soil, cutting back weeds and milking her cows.

“I was back there for the first time in so long, but every day I was learning something new from my mum, I was like a student all over again,” Mr Kiara says as we talk over a cup of hot water with honey in a Nairobi hotel.

“Even after everything I have done in my career, I was gaining new experience there with her on her small farm. I believe there is always something new we can learn from others. I was thinking, this is something I have come to know mostly from the way the Swedish have worked here in Kenya’s agricultural sector.”

Mr Kiara’s last full-time job of his career was as a Senior Programme Manager for agriculture and rural development at the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi. For close to three decades before that, he worked in increasingly senior positions at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. As part of this series of interviews to celebrate Sweden’s long partnership with Kenya in the 50 years since its independence, Mr Kiara, 59, took time to look back at the two countries’ work together.

Before 1963, Kenyan small-holder farmers were not encouraged to grow cash crops, but depended on subsistence agriculture to feed their families. Large-scale industrial farms were the preserve of the British colonial farmers.

A strategy known as the Swynnerton Plan, formulated by a British government official in the decade before independence (the 1950’s), began to change that outdated mentality. But soon after independence, Mr Kiara says, Kenya’s new land-owner farmers began widespread destruction of natural resources in a rush to clear land for ever-larger harvests.

The Government of Kenya sought help to curb this and Stockholm was one of the first places they looked to for advice. Among its earliest contributions was to support the expansion of technical colleges and centres to train science teachers, Mr Kiara says.

“It was not immediately obvious the impact that this would have in terms of Kenya’s growth, but it helped to develop many sectors, especially agriculture.”

Alongside support for building Kenya’s scientific capacity, one of Sweden’s first practical engagements in the newly-independent agriculture sector was the dairy sector. With Swedish help, Kenya began a programme to develop infrastructure for the artificial insemination of local cows.
Semen from selected bulls from Europe and India were introduced into Kenyan domestic herds to create hybrid cattle adapted for African conditions, but with improved milk and meat yields. Why focus on livestock? Mr Kiara explains:

“In the years after independence, few Kenyans had large land-holdings, but almost every family had a cow as a basis for income and for nutrition, for milk. Improving the dairy sector therefore would have an impact among the most people.”

In time, of course, more and more Kenyan farmers bought their own land and Kenya’s agricultural policy makers began to focus on protecting the key components of productive harvests: soil and water. During the 1960s and 1970s, strategies were developed to reverse the erosion of vegetation cover, to conserve soil nutrition and encourage greater rainfall, Mr Kiara says. This was his focus for the middle years of his career, when he was posted as principal soil conservation officer to Nakuru, Kenya’s fourth-largest city and the regional headquarters of the country’s breadbasket province, Rift Valley.

“What we came to know was that the five most important things about soil and water conservation were training, training, training, training and training,” he says with a smile.

“We taught farmers, but we also talked to policemen, doctors, bureaucrats, politicians, everyone, about conserving the soil and preserving water supplies. The idea was psychologically to influence the thinking of all Kenyans, even if they were not farmers. Then everyone would understand the need to conserve our environment, even if they were not actively working the land.”

Mr Kiara’s career next brought him to the capital, where he eventually directed the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Programme (NALEP), itself implemented with sustained Swedish assistance. The thrust of the support was to reform public extension service to make it more efficient and effective for purposes of improving agricultural productivity.

Increasing importance was also placed on the need to enshrine equality and transparency into all policies enacted by the Kenyan government, to boost the involvement of women in all areas of the economy, and to tackle corruption.

“Principles of human rights, of gender equality, of good governance, non-discrimination, legal process, all of this is now mainstream, but when we began these with Sweden’s encouragement, they were very new ideas to people here”, Mr Kiara says.

In about four years, the results of mainstreaming were felt. For example, women participation in programme activities increased from 10% in 2007 to 35% in 2011.

Jean-Philippe Deschamps-Laporte, a Kenya-based economist affiliated to the Örebro University in Sweden, can confirm the programme’s positive effects:

“First of all, the programme has been very ‘clean’ from a corruption point of view. Audit reports show that less than 0.1% of the funds are unaccounted for. That is exceptional in a Kenyan context.”

Through training, and by building trust between communities and government experts, rural people have been given better opportunities for the future. Mr Deschamps-Laporte continues:

“In our research, we saw that in the villages that participated in the NALEP, household incomes were higher than in the neighboring villages. People were also more likely to act upon advice from government experts.”
 
However, for any major leap forward in agricultural productivity to happen, Kenya would need a much bigger shift, according to Deschamps-Laporte.

“Most farms are simply too small. No-one can make a good living on half a football pitch, especially with faulty property rights and credit markets. But as long as no credible land reform is undertaken, the chances for the small landowners to succeed commercially are slim.”
 
Mr Kiara agrees there are challenges. There is still not enough government funding or investment in farming, even though it produces more revenue than any other sector, he says. European and American subsidised farming holds back Kenya’s farmers from fair market access. Unfair regulations, such as those addressing the proper size or shape of bananas bought in European shops, are further concerns.

Despite this, Mr Kiara is optimistic as he talks about how Kenya’s agricultural sector will develop over the next half-century.  “There are many young people who want to be involved, but they see agriculture as a business, not just as survival as my parents’ generation would have seen it,” he says. “There is great hope.”

“Small-scale farmers are the majority in Kenya,” Mr Kiara concludes, “so if you want to have a big impact on many people, then of course focus on them. That’s what Sweden has done. It’s just common sense.”

Text: Mike Pflanz.