Dominion Farms and food security in Kenya

State of Affairs | June 10, 2011

Dominion Farms and food security in Kenya

by Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

Originally published as "Dominion Farms: The intricacies of foreign agricultural investment in the Yala swamp" in The Link, June 2011

The intricacies of foreign agricultural investment in the Yala swamp

In West Kenya on the North-eastern shore of Lake Victoria the Yala swamp wetland is one of Kenya’s biodiversity hotspots. The Yala swamp also supports several communities that utilise the wetland’s natural resources to support their families and secure their livelihoods. Even more, many people recognise the swamp’s extraordinary potential as agricultural land to significantly boost Kenya’s food security. These are three widely diverse interests, which may seem to be difficult to reconcile. Yet, with proper management, sufficient investment and effective communication, a differentiated utilisation of the Yala swamp can be realised through a system of multiple land-use. This will be a difficult but certainly not unrealistic objective.

A Brief History

The most recent development of the Yala swamp is undertaken by Dominion Farms, a subsidiary of a privately held company from the United States investing in agricultural development. The reclamation and development of the swamp, however, is far from a new phenomenon.

The intention of the Kenyan government to transform parts of the Yala swamp into agricultural land for food production goes back as far as the early 1970s. Around that time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands was consulted extensively by the Kenyan government for technical assistance on reclamation of the swamp and the feasibility of agricultural production.

Throughout the 1980s numerous reports were commissioned by the Kenyan Ministry for Energy and Regional Development and the Lake Basin Development Authority to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Reports like the “Yala Integrated Development Plan” and the “Yala Swamp Reclamation and Development Project” focussed in depth on the potential of the development of the swamp and made recommendations on practical matters, such as drainage and irrigation, soil analysis, agriculture, marketing, environmental aspects, employment opportunities, human settlement, management and financial planning.

As a result, small-scale reclamation and development of the swamp land was undertaken throughout the 1980s and 1990s under the supervision of the Lake Basin Development Authority. The development of the swamp was partially successful, yet its scale was small and financial benefits were too marginal. Major investment was therefore required to extend the scale of the project.

Then, in 2003, an American investor expressed interest to make significant long-term investments into bringing parts of the swamp into agricultural production. Subsequently, a lease for 45 years was negotiated between Dominion Farms and the Siaya and Bondo County Councils to bring into agricultural production some 7,000 hectares of the Yala swamp. The whole Yala swamp wetland covers 17,500 hectares, which means that Dominion Farms is allowed to reclaim and develop roughly 40% of the swamp.

The Protracted Conflict

Since the early days of the arrival of the foreign investor in 2004, there has been lingering tension and occasional flares of conflict between the communities surrounding the project site, third parties (i.e. government officials, politicians, NGOs, CBOs, environmentalists) and the investor.

The most commonly touted complaint is that Dominion Farms has ‘grabbed’ the communities’ land. While it is hard to trace back the exact procedures and individuals that were involved, there are clear contracts with the Siaya and Bondo County Councils that substantiate the transfer of land-use to Dominion Farms for a period of 45 years. Some claim, however, that the negotiation process for the lease was entrenched in bribery and corruption, yet no-one has been able to show this author a single trace of evidence to substantiate these accusations. Similarly, there are complaints by local residents that they were never consulted in the negotiation process – where they should have been, as they rightly point out that the swamp is community trust land. However, the land is held in trust by the relevant County Council for the community. The County Council should therefore initiate consultations with the local communities and residents to get their approval to lease the land to third parties. So it appears that some of the resentment over the ‘loss’ of parts of the swamp should not be directed at the foreign investor but rather target the local County Council and their procedures.

Alongside the procedural matters regarding the lease of the land, it remains understandable that some of the local residents find it difficult to understand why ‘their land’ is now in the hands of a foreign investor. Their tradition, culture and livelihood are often greatly entrenched in the land they live on, part of which they are no longer allowed to access. For many it is difficult to grasp that their County Council decided to bring foreign investment and development to some of the community trust land in order to affect greater food security, employment opportunities and infrastructural development of the region.

Besides the matter of the land, there are many other objections and concerns often raised with regard to the agricultural project of Dominion Farms. In a non-exhaustive fashion, some of these problems will be addressed here.

For one, there is discontent amongst local residents over a road constructed by Dominion Farms passing through the heart of Dominion’s farm. Initially this road was open to the public and local residents were allowed to make use of the road. However, when all of the land adjacent to the road came under production, Dominion Farms decided it was no longer safe to keep the road open since huge tractors and heavy equipment frequent the road on a daily basis. Still, it is understandable that some local residents were disappointed that they could no longer make use of this road. However, the private use of the road does not foreclose access for local residents to certain areas, and a good alternative road is available that goes around the farm. Incidentally, many local residents did express their gratitude for another road built by the investor passing through Lake Kanyaboli, which effectively connects the communities on both sides of the lake.

Water management and water quality is also a hot topic. Prior to the arrival of Dominion Farms there existed a canal from the river – which functions as the main water source of the wetland – to Lake Kanyaboli. Due to its small size and poor maintenance, however, it hardly allowed any water to reach the lake. Dominion Farms subsequently constructed a weir in the river to divert water to newly built canals for the purpose of irrigating their rice paddies but also to replenish Lake Kanyaboli.

Now, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the management of the water diversion at the weir, the use of water for irrigation and the supply to Lake Kanyaboli. The most frequently heard concern and accusation is that too much water is extracted from the canals for irrigation, leaving little fresh water to replenish the lake. Allegedly, this has resulted in a serious drop of the water level in the lake and certain parts of the lake turning saline. One of the proponents of this view is the Kenya Wildlife Service, yet they did not substantiate these claims with factual reports. There are, however, periodic water quality analysis reports that Dominion Farms is required to produce together with an official from the Water Resources Management Authority. These reports show, on the contrary, that the water quality and water levels in the lake have seen significant improvements over the last years. Kenya Wildlife Service believes, however, that these analyses done by Dominion Farms together with the Water Resources Management Authority are ‘compromised’. Interestingly, an independent researcher from the University of Nairobi, who spent vast amounts of time researching the lake area from 2002 to 2006, stated that since Dominion Farms built the weir and opened up the new larger canals the water quality and water level in the lake has improved dramatically. One could only wonder where the disparity in the reports on the water situation in and around the swamp comes from.

The Yala swamp and Lake Kanyaboli are important biodiversity hot spots in Kenya; so many people have serious concerns over the faith of the wildlife if the swamp is converted to agricultural land. In this respect, it may be important to note again that less than half of the swamp will be reclaimed for agricultural production, leaving some 60% of the Yala swamp wetland untouched. A number of people, however, believe that Dominion Farms’ ultimate aim is to lease and reclaim the entire swamp area. A full reclamation of the swamp would indeed be disastrous for the wildlife and biodiversity of the Yala wetland. It appears however, from various discussions, documents and the current lease contracts, that there is no willingness on the side of the investor to develop more than the currently allocated hectares.

In addition, the Kenya Wildlife Service has recently gazetted Lake Kanyaboli and parts of the Yala swamp as the ‘Lake Kanyaboli National Reserve’ at the request of the Siaya County Council. The new reserve is a key effort in the conservation of the biodiversity in and around Lake Kanyaboli. Unfortunately, the gazetting has led to a serious disagreement between some of the communities, the County Council and Kenya Wildlife Services over the management of the reserve. While this is a regrettable situation, it does show that conflict over food, water and land in the Yala swamp is not restricted to foreign investment and development.

Finally, the development plans for the Yala swamp are essentially aimed at bringing employment, food security and hopefully agricultural education and knowledge transfer to the region. In a region with high levels of poverty, one would expect foreign investment to be a welcome avenue to realise this kind of development. Yet, some half-a-decade into the project there is a sense of disappointment and disbelief within parts of the communities. Some Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and local residents criticise the employment opportunities at Dominion Farms, the impact on the local food security and the potential for agricultural education.

The employment at the farm is partly seasonal, and consists for a large part of unskilled labour on casual or part-time basis. Critics argue that these kind of unskilled jobs, such as weeding rice paddies and scaring away birds, are degrading for the local people. Yet, upon questioning the local women in the rice fields there is an overall positive response to their employment and the opportunity it gives them to generate their own incomes. Moreover, skilled jobs and full-time positions are available to the local communities – however, perhaps not in the quantity that most of the communities had hoped or were promised by politicians.

Food security is also surrounded by wide confusion and misunderstanding. Many of the local residents allege they were promised free rice on a monthly basis by the investor. Yet they state to have never received any free rice, except for a one-off rice hand out sometime in 2008. The investor argues that most people would understand that it does not make any economic sense to give rice away for free, yet that indeed a free hand-out took place during the difficult times of the post-election violence in 2008 when many communities became food insecure. Instead of free rice, the rice is sold at affordable prices to the local communities so that they can feed themselves and even become small-scale entrepreneurs by selling the rice. Other concerns over the food production at the farm are based upon unsubstantiated claims that most of the rice produced by Dominion Farms is directly exported. However, there is no evidence available to support the claims that most of the rice is exported to the United States or to prove the allegation that it is used to ‘feed prisoners of the United States in Iraq’. What can be verified, though, is the wide availability of Dominion Farms’ rice in Kenya. Most major supermarkets carry their brand and small kiosks all over Nyanza province sell the rice.

The potential for agricultural education and knowledge transfer by bringing in foreign investment and expertise is generally recognised. Over the years some trials and pilots have been conducted by Dominion Farms, which, however, have not yet generated structural long-term results. Nonetheless, the investor is in the process of building a Youth Education Centre on its farm grounds. Yet many of the local people do not believe they will get an opportunity to be educated once the centre is up and running. There is a wide spread belief under the local communities that access to education at the forthcoming Youth Education Centre will only be open to Americans. When asked though, the investor stated that their education centre and programs will be open to youth from anywhere in the world, including to local youth from the surrounding communities.

Structural Problems

Most of the current and past conflicts over Dominion Farms’ development of the Yala swamp can be traced back to three structural problems: poor communication, cultural and social misunderstanding and political involvement.

It is distressing to observe that communication between the investor, communities, government and third parties (NGOs, CBOs, media) remains even today as a key weakness in the appreciation and understanding of this agricultural development project. On all sides of the conflict it seems that parties are not interested, motivated or willing to have a proper dialogue on the issues at hand. Either because they have tried before and did not achieve the desired results, or they just take for granted that the other side is not interested or unwilling to engage. This lack of communication becomes evident when one speaks to all parties. The communities generally lack factual information about the whole project; the size, plans, activities, investment, employment opportunities, and environmental approach – just to name a few. Some of the local residents very much rely on the information provided by CBOs, NGOs and environmental organisations working in the region. However, it appears that these organisations also occasionally lack some fundamental information and rely to some degree on hearsay. The investor seems to have given up on actively providing third parties with factual information on their operations, and appears to be no longer concerned with the ongoing stream of negative press. This is an unfortunate outcome, as a more active communication- and engagement strategy could clear up many of the misunderstandings. Finally, also the regular and digital media often do not seem to provide accurate accounts, most of their reports focus on undesirable and damaging consequences of the development of the Yala swamp but are hardly ever substantiated by any factual evidence.

Cultural and social misunderstanding can take many forms. In the case of the development of the Yala swamp it appears that most of the parties directly or indirectly involved in the conflict have a different cultural or social understanding of ‘development’. The investor takes the perspective that large-scale economies and production are the most efficient way to run a business and at the same time increase food security in Kenya. This requires huge investment in infrastructure, which indirectly benefits the local communities. Local communities often respond that they favour the development of the region, yet they believe this should be done by their government. Their interest lies in infrastructural development, the availability and access to education and employment opportunities – while at the same time retaining a degree of self-sufficiency.  Most of them find it difficult to accept that a foreign investor may be better equipped, or simply more willing, to provide this type of development. Wildlife conservationists and environmental organisations argue that any development should mean preserving the natural habitat and biodiversity of the wetland, and should therefore focus on stimulating and developing eco-tourism facilities. There is no wrong or right understanding of development. However, not respecting or ignoring other perspectives can easily create tensions and bring about the types of conflict as illustrated above.

Political involvement has been an extremely volatile factor in the development of the Yala swamp by Dominion Farms. Some politicians were involved in the early days of negotiating the lease and development plans between Dominion Farms, the Lake Basin Development Authority and the County Councils. In one way this may have been a key factor in securing foreign investment to bring development to a poverty-stricken region of Kenya, however, the politicians involved seem to have made many promises to their constituencies. Some of the promises even on behalf of the investor. Even worse, on the campaign trail politicians have been found to fire up their voters to either support agricultural production in the Yala swamp by making hollow promises or by vowing to shut down the whole project and get rid of the foreign investor. Their behaviour has been erratic, jumping forth and back from supporting to opposing the development of the Yala swamp. This appears to have been one of the factors underlying the mistrust and lack of communication as described previously. Interestingly, all of the parties affected or embroiled in the conflict mention political involvement as one of the main sources for the protracted conflict.

A Way Forward

The current status quo is a workable situation, yet not a desirable long-term outcome. As explained, there is a lot to gain from improving communication, disregarding hearsay, minimising political involvement and broadening cultural and social understanding.

It is clear that a balance must be sought between on the one hand the sustainable conservation of the wetland and its biodiversity as well as the reliance of the communities on the natural resources, and on the other hand the agricultural potential of the swamp to increase food security as well as bring development, education and employment to a region that is known for its high level of poverty. Dialogue and genuine engagement are essential tools to realise such a balance between conservation, sustainable rural livelihoods and economic and agricultural development.

Photo: Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

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