This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on August 21, 2016
Kenyans are well aware of the tensions and dynamics around land ownership in the country. The contentious issues around land are often linked to tribal and ethnic tensions; indeed land issues informed the ferocity of post-election violence in 2007/8. But beyond being a tension between different communities, land ownership issues are hampering the country’s economic development.
Firstly, land directly affects agricultural productivity, or the lack thereof. At the moment, statistics indicate that small-scale farming accounts for at least 75 percent of the country’s total agricultural output and 70 percent of marketed agricultural produce. In short, most of the meals eaten by Kenyans come from a smallholder farmer working away on his or her small patch of land. However, one of the reasons why agricultural productivity is so low in the country is precisely because the vast majority of farmers are farming over-worked, nutrient-depleted, small pieces of land that have been subdivided for generations. The situation is made more complex by the fact that many small holder farmers do not have the title deed to the land.
So while there may be a general acknowledgement by their community that the land they farm is indeed theirs, the costs related to registering land and acquiring titles are too high for most smallholder farmers. As a result the farmers do not legally own the land and thus cannot use the land as collateral to access credit that could allow them to make improvements to their farms and farming practices. More importantly, smallholder farms cannot be conglomerated in one large piece that can be more efficiently farmed with higher levels of mechanisation, productivity and profitability. As a result, Kenyans agriculture sector is stuck in a rut with no foreseeable way out because of the land issue. If anything, the situation will worsen as the average size of land holdings continues to reduce due to the cultural practice of subdivisions of the land for each son in the family for inheritance purposes.
Manufacturing is also affected by Kenyan’s land problem because even if a company wants to expand operations to another part of the country, the process of procuring land on which the factory or plant will be built is daunting. The lack of legal title depresses demand for land because potential buyers do not want to negotiate the complexities of proving ownership. No one wants the nightmare of procuring a piece of land that is then mired in contention that prevents business activity from moving forward. Thus it must be asked: to what extent are land issues hampering the expansion of industry and manufacturing in the country? Further, the lack of legal ownership also makes it difficult for land holders to come together and combine smaller pieces of land into a mass that can more effectively attract capital investment. In short, both supply and demand are affected by the land question.
Finally, infrastructure development is more costly, mired in delays and incredibly complex because of land issues. In some cases communities do not agree with the valuation of land engendering renegotiations, in other cases absentee landlords make the process of land acquisition long and arduous. However, the most complex is where communities live on what they consider their ancestral land but the land is legally owned by another person or entity. Who is to be compensated in such cases not only from a legal, but also moral point of view? How is compensation to be negotiated without engendering protest? Land is a core factor behind the accrual of delays and expenses in some of the infrastructure projects in the country.
In short, a great deal of Kenya’s economic potential is locked in the land. Sadly, due to the way politics is linked to tribal identity and thus land in Kenya, it may be decades before the country sees a crop of leaders prepared to address the land issue and unlock a great deal of the country’s economic potential.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org