A Tale of Two Governors; Mwangi Wa Iria and Alfred Mutua

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It goes without saying that the promulgation of the new constitution in August, 2010 marked the beginning of a new era in Kenya . The impact of this constitution was to be felt in all sectors of the economy. This is especially so since many of the functions that were previously handled by the national government were to be devolved to the County government. Chief among these were agriculture, health and education. The fourth estate has so far done a wonderful job in highlighting the progress made my various county governments. Time and time again, two governors have caught the media’s eye. They have proven themselves developmental and unlike most governors in the country, they have given political shenanigans a wide berth and sought to deliver the pledges they made to their people. It is these two, Mwangi Wa Iria and Alfred Mutua that I shall attempt to profile especially in matters food and nutrition security.

Mwangi Wa Iria, the governor of Murang’a County rode into power on two pledges; to put money into people’s pockets and to better the grade of students in the County.

To meet these pledges, he sourced the expertise of Deloitte and Touch firm who drew a 1 year strategic plan. This plan was fed into the County’s 5-year strategic plan. Agriculture and Education were given highest priority.

In agriculture, the governor has invested Ksh 50 million in fertiliser and seed subsidy. This is in addition to the fertiliser subsidy offered by the national government. The county subsidy targets 6,500 farmers. It is also used in the acquisition of several drought resistant crops such as Soya, sweet potato and Katumani beans to be planted in the semi-arid areas of the county.

He has also invested Ksh 200 million in an irrigation scheme covering 1000 acres that is to benefit 10,000 farmers. This scheme will focus on growing of rice and horticultural crops. It is envisioned that the county shall be able to produce enough for its own consumption but more importantly for sale to other counties.

In April, this year, Mwangi Wa Iria invested Ksh 500 million in the purchase of 35 milk coolers for every ward. Youth and women were encouraged to form groups wherein they would be given a heifer with which to start a dairy herd. I suppose, as a former managing director of the New Kenya Cooperative Creameries, investment in the dairy sector was in the offing.

Perhaps the most innovative investment strategy that the governor has employed is the formation of Murang’a Investment Cooperative Sacco (MICS). The Sacco aims to raise funds from the county residents for investment in real estate, energy and agro-processing. It seems to have been borrowed from Rwanda’s Agaciro fund whose main function is to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign aid. To their credit, members of the county assembly seem to be the only ones in Kenya who have drawn lessons from those expensive learning trips to Rwanda.

In education, the governor has invested Ksh 70 million in a bursary for bright and needy students in the County. Furthermore, he has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Kenyatta University to advance agribusiness initiatives in the County.

On the other hand, Alfred Mutua seems to pick his development agenda from a handbook of trickledown economics.

He has made several investments in recreational infrastructure such as the Machakos People’s park and the Machakos stadium. These investments, combined with flamboyant public relations machinery, have seen Machakos be the darling of Nairobi’s middle class. The hosting of several music concerts and rugby tournaments in Machakos town is a testament to this fact.

In recent times, he has flaunted the Kitumani-Makutano ma Mwala road as the ‘fastest built highway in Kenya and possibly in Africa’. Built at a cost of Ksh 650 million instead of the proposed Ksh 1.6 billion, Alfred Mutua has publicised the infrastructure as an African lesson in austerity. However, doubts have been raised about the quality and durability of the road and his ‘Maendeleo Chap Chap’ philosophy. It is because of this that many political pundits question his long term commitment to the people of Machakos County. They view his handling of Machakos County as a convenient stepping stone to a higher political office. But I digress.

Other investments in the pipeline by my Mutua include digging of boreholes (800), dams and pans (820) and raised water tanks (896).

He has also set aside money (figures not provided) for provision of free tractors, subsidised fertilisers, free chicks, seeds and greenhouses for 20 women groups in each of the 40 wards in the county. However, the actualisation of these investments remains to be seen.

To his credit, education in primary schools in the County have received a boost due to a Ksh 250 million in the supplementary budget allocated for School Feeding Programs and other food relief programs in the county.

Perhaps the most significant investment undertaken by Alfred Mutua is the purchasing of 80 ambulances (70 vans and 10 motorcycles) and upgrading the 40 community health centres in each ward to community hospitals. Considering that 360 women per 100,000 live births died in Kenya in 2013 and 73 children out of 1000 births die before the age of five, any investment to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rate in Kenya is very much welcome. Indeed as the governor stated in his speech during the launch of the ambulances (in flamboyance of course), perhaps Machakos county (or the Government of Machakos as the Dr prefers) would see an end to the naming of children as ‘Nzia’ meaning one born by the roadside.

So there is the brief profile of the soft spoken Mwangi Wa Iria and the stylish Alfred Mutua (Dr I should add). Come 2017 the scorecard of governors will be in the offing. I bet that residents of Murang’a County will have more money in their pockets (Ksh 200/day up from the current Ksh 63/day) and her children would record higher grades. I also bet that the living standards in Machakos County will have improved immensely. However, much of this will be evident in Machakos town and other peri-urban areas rather than the rural areas. Thus, if given a choice, I would rather be a resident in Murang’a County.

Neymar and Maize: The Peculiar Similarities

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I truly empathise with Brazil and her fans all over the world. Although I am no doctor, it seems to me that a fractured vertebra is no small matter. So much so that Neymar would have to miss out on the rest of World Cup. Brazil Coach Luis Felipe Scolari and the Brazilian team laid a lot of hope on the young man.

It was obvious right from the start that the game revolved around Neymar’s performance. Balls were fed to him from both flanks of the field. It seemed all players were under strict instruction to look out for the boy whenever they obtained possession of the ball. The coach has tried to lay the blame of Neymar’s injury on the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, who allowed several rugged challenges from both sides to go unpunished throughout the match between Brazil and Colombia. However, I think the referee was just trying to allow the game flow without many stoppages. Neymar’s injury should fall squarely on the Brazil Coach. He is the one who thrust the boy into the limelight, and allowed him to take centre stage; even when there was clear indication of his being increasingly fouled throughout the world Cup matches. The pressure to perform was clearly weighing heavy on Neymar. He is without a doubt the poster boy of the Brazil team. However, placing too much importance on one individual, no matter how good, is bound to have its consequences.

This phenomenon is not restricted to soccer talent management only. It is also true in matters food and nutrition security.

During my studies in Uganda, it was often quipped that the availability of a wide array of staples in Uganda was the key factor that prevented the occurrence of famine during Idi Amin’s presidency. Plantains, sweet potatoes, arrowroots, cassava, and maize are just but some of the many staples widely consumed by Ugandans. It is not uncommon for one to order a little bit of each, along with a desired stew such as groundnuts, beans and the like. It is true, without a single shadow of doubt, that Ugandans’ dietary diversity score is way up there. Cross over to Kenya, my beloved country, and the situation is the exact opposite. Our obsession with maize is unbridled.

In order to understand how maize came to take center stage in matters agriculture, a sneak peek into the past is helpful.

The maize crop was introduced to Kenya by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th Century. However, it became an important commercial crop when adopted by the European settlers in the 18th century. The latter did away with the Portuguese variety that did well in the coastal areas and introduced varieties sought from South Africa which had higher yields.

Many European large scale farmers gravitated towards maize over cash crops like tea, coffee, sisal and pyrethrum. This was largely attributed to the lower initial financial costs required to engage in maize farming and the quicker returns. Moreover, maize did not require a high level of technical skills and management as did other crops.

The European famers were encouraged to grow maize by the then colonial government which offered them such incentives as special railway transport rebates and protection from vagaries of the world market. Furthermore, maize offered an easy means of feeding the African labour force employed in the vast farms. In the 1st and 2nd world war, the colonial government encouraged and supported the farmers to produce even more in the name of supporting British war efforts.

Such steps taken by the colonial government laid the foundation for a radical change in the tastes and preferences of Africans. Overtime, plantation workers and world war veterans preferred maize to traditional staples such as sorghum and millet. In Nyanza, stories were told of young men offering to work in European plantations not only earn money but also enjoy free rations of Ugali maize meal. And as they say, the rest is history.

Maize is now grown even in arid and semi-arid lands, areas which do not support the agronomical requirements of the crop. Agricultural research institutes are burning the midnight oil to develop drought resistant maize varieties. Although, these efforts are laudable it makes more sense to promote the adoption of crops such as sorghum and millet which have significantly lower water requirements than maize.

In peculiar similarity to the popular Neymar, the popular maize crop is beginning to give in. Farmers in the South Rift are beginning to shy away from the crop after incurring heavy losses attributed to necrosis disease. Yields have dwindled over the years due to declining soil fertility while human population has increased and consequently the per capita consumption of maize. Hence, farmers in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu County, the major maize production areas, are also beginning to look to other high value crops owing to declining profits in maize production. Due to climate change, rain fed maize yields are expected to fall drastically. Consequently, it is predicted that come 2050, world prices for maize would increase by 52-55%.

In order to avert food insecurity in the long term, I suggest a three-pronged solution. There should be a national nutrition education programme. This campaign should be sustained over a considerable period of time say five years. During this period, behaviour change regarding food choice especially of staples ought to be monitored and evaluated at previously agreed intervals. Perhaps, consumer research firms devoted to political polls that more often than not are of little public benefit can be put to good use. Secondly, protectionism around the maize crop should be completely removed. In its stead, incentives should be given to farmers to grow other staples such as millet, potatoes, sorghum and the like. Thirdly, research institutes should channel their time and energies to developing varieties of the aforementioned crops that are high yielding, disease and pest-resistant.

Contrary to taking the suggested measures, it will only be a matter of time before the maize crop completely gives in. Then, we will be left wondering why we did not heed the warnings the crop tried to give us that it was under too much pressure to perform.

NB: Historical information on maize largely obtained from Professor Mark Ollunga Odhiambo’s inaugural lecture: ‘The Kenyan Maize Sub-Sector Performance and Its Implications for Food Security Policy Dialogue.