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Devolution can transform Northern Kenya: Open Letter to the Governors of the North

By Abdi Dualle

dualeFor the first time in the fifty years of independence, we have an opportunity to develop Northern Kenya; a region so marginalized that its people’s dignity and social justice is among the lowest in the country.

Very few people in the region can access basic needs. Lack of proper healthcare, hardship, and poor nutrition are a reality, it is no wonder the average life expectancy in the region is 10 years below the national average. Only 5% of the population can access clean piped water, with the larger majority having to walk for kilometers to fetch the life-giving commodity.

Healthcare is a luxury in this part of the country. Medical services are poorly equipped and staffed, and sparsely located, forcing most residents to travel long distances on treacherous roads to access the service. But even after being attended to by the clinical officers or nurses at the facilities, diagnosing ailments is harder due to lack of necessary equipment, or electricity to run the machines.

Infrastructural development in the region is non-existent that the people only hear of good roads in stories. Northern Kenya does not have even a kilometer of tarmacked road. Electricity is also unheard of. Schoolchildren use candles and lanterns during night preps.

Devolution brings hope that the difficulties bedeviling the region and its inhabitants will be tackled with visionary leadership, and efficient management of resources. Devolution is expected to channel about Ksh.25 Billion annually to Garissa, Wajir and Mandera Counties, and an estimated Ksh.300 billion in 10 years cumulatively. This is a massive amount of resources that can transform the region if invested wisely through well thought out strategies with mid and long term plans to change it from the hopeless poverty stricken region it is today, to a region that can create wealth and add value to the exchequer, and stand with pride among its equals.

Past and present regimes have attempted to mitigate poverty in the region by distributing relief supplies and sinking boreholes. These stopgap measures during famine and other emergencies have done very little to eliminate poverty. Besides, they have created a culture of dependency and laziness among the local communities.

The county governments should formulate ways that encourage residents to fend for themselves and create personal wealth. It has been observed that when individuals take initiatives to change their lives and prosper, given the right infrastructure and support, their concerted efforts creates a stronger and wealthier society.

The governors should take stock of the available resources in the region and harness it by adding value to realize its full potential. For instance, livestock is a major resource in this region. Northern Kenya is home to about 60% of the indigenous livestock population in the country. It supplies more than half of the beef industry’s demand, and 60% of the chevon and mutton requirement. The meat products from this part of the country are high quality and organic, a much sought after quality in the international market.

However, due to non-existent marketing programs or structures, the farmers throw away their animals at pathetic prices. The price of this quality meat is lower than any other produce grown in other parts of the country. You can imagine a kilo of organic meat going at a lower rate than wheat, sugar, maize flour etc.

To uplift these communities from poverty, the county governments must invest in robust marketing strategies and ensure that the local farmer gets value for their livestock. These can be realized by creating disease free zones, modern slaughterhouses, an internationally certified laboratory for disease control, and access to the lucrative markets of the EU and the Middle East.

Currently, we cannot export our meat products to high value markets due to lack of a disease control program, and the drug residues found in meat. However, these can be overcome if the above measures are put in place. Sudan has achieved this standard and is the biggest exporter of mutton and small live ruminants to the gulf market. Even some regions in lawless Somalia have achieved these standards and are able to export to those markets and obtain high prices for their meat and live animals.

With the above strategies and exposure to the markets, it is possible to achieve optimal meat prices of 300% northward of the current prevailing rates. The ideal price through such initiatives would be $1,500, $1,000 and $150 for camel, beef cattle and sheep/goats, respectively. This would translate into complete poverty reduction and eventual elimination of reliance on relief food for the livestock farmer in the region.

The life of the pastoralist would be transformed by enhanced animal husbandry, proper use of animal health products, and creation of new model of business like feedlots and livestock trade, like those found in South Africa, Australia and Brazil. It would also have a ripple effect on school enrolment because an enlightened, informed and wealthy farmer would improve family life by educating his children.

Meat products supply and delivery to major consumer counties should also be streamlined, and efficient systems employed to reduce on transport cost that currently consumes 20% of the sale value of beef cattle. Transportation of live animals in trucks should be done away with and refrigerated trucks introduced to ferry the carcasses to Nairobi and other major towns. This would reduce transport cost by 75% because a refrigerated lorry can load 5 times more (slaughtered) animals than is achieved with the live animals.

From an enhanced livestock development program, there would be an added opportunity of tapping into the leather industry. The region is one of the largest sources of hides and skins, and the sector can be developed further by establishing a leather processing plant in one of the counties, with collection points in the other two. This would also raise the price of the raw materials from the villages, improving individuals’ income to the benefit of the local communities.

The other area the county governments should focus on for value addition is the agricultural farmer. The banks of River Tana in Garissa and River Daua in Mandera have attracted small scale farming since the early 1980s, and despite the warm and humid weather condition, locals are able to successfully cultivate cash crops that do well in the region. Bananas, pawpaw, mangos, melons, oranges, tomatoes and onions are some of the crops grown in the area and there is always surplus that can be exported to other parts of the country.

The farmers who are originally pastoralists do not have enough knowledge in crop farming, agricultural economics and marketing of their produce. This is an area, which the county government could support through training, providing quality seedlings, offering technical knowhow, developing infrastructure within and outside the farms, and marketing of the produce.

To encourage farming and ensure that the sector becomes viable to the farmer, the governments should create a one-off revolving fund that supports the farmers to market their crops. This can be achieved by setting up warehouses in major towns for collection and purchase of produce from the farmers. The government then creates outlets to sell the produce in major consuming regions like Nairobi. The county authority can add a marginal mark up to cater for overheads, but the main objective being to support the farmer and uplift living conditions in the region. This way the smallholder is protected from the rigorous process of trying to find a buyer for his produce, and is allowed more time to focus on the farm to improve the quality of his crops.

Kenya is a consumer of Egyptian produce, especially fruits grown in the harsh climate of the North African country using the irrigated water from River Nile. We have less severe weather conditions and higher average rainfall in Northern Kenya to enable us replicate the Egyptian irrigation system, and export our produce to markets around the world.

With these small changes and adjustments, a lot can be achieved in turning around the fortunes of the communities living in the northern region.

The writer is a businessman.

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