WHEN Wilson Kariuki’s three younger children finish high school, the Kenyan rice farmer will not have to worry about paying to send them to a university far from home, as he did with his two eldest.
Instead, they can attend a new university being built in their home village of Ngurubani, central Kenya, on 100 acres (40 hectares) that the farmers on the Mwea Irrigation Scheme now own after winning a case against the county government in April.
The rice farmers’ victory is a sign of the rising awareness of land rights that is driving small-scale farmers around Kenya to demand ownership of the land they live and work on, farmers and land rights activists say.
“This land will benefit our children,” said Kariuki, 55. “When they study at a university which is based here, they will help our community solve problems which have been troubling us for years – like the issue of land rights.”
The farmers had donated portions of their farmland in 2017 for the construction of a medical research centre to study water-borne diseases, Kariuki explained.
But the project stalled when Kirinyaga County officials presented the farmers with a title deed that claimed the land as government property.
After lobbying by farmers, local leaders and grassroots groups, the National Land Commission (NLC), an independent government body that manages public land, declared the county government’s title illegal and issued a new one to the farmers.
But the battle is not over yet, said Kariuki. He and the more than 50,000 farmers on the irrigation scheme now want the national government to issue them with title deeds to their individual plots of land.
With land titles, the farmers would have autonomy from the National Irrigation Authority (NIA), which manages the plantation and dictates what the farmers can grow, how much they produce and what they sell it for.
“Title deeds will help farmers make decisions over their land,” said Stephen Mururia, a human rights defender with the Mwea Foundation, a local lobby group.
“For instance, they can decide to switch from rice growing to a more profitable crop,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Previous efforts to convince the government to give the farmers individual title deeds – through meetings with officials and demands from local leaders – always end with promises that are never met, Kariuki said.
Daniel Nzonzo, head of corporate communication at the NIA, said in a phone interview that “the issue of rice farmers getting title deeds is being considered by the government through the NLC.”
“This matter is already with the Senate, who will debate it,” he added, without giving a timeline for when the debate might take place.
Located some 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of the capital Nairobi, the 30,050-acre (12,160-hectare) Mwea plantation is the largest rice-growing irrigation scheme in Kenya, with a population of about 50,000.
It produces about 90,000 tonnes of rice each year, or 80% of the country’s rice supply, according to the National Irrigation Authority.
Each farming family in Mwea has the right to live and work on up to four acres (1.6 hectares) of land under a 99-year leasehold that started when the plantation was established in 1954, according to independent land rights researcher Gladys Gichobi.
As the farmers continue their efforts to gain legal ownership of that land, they can look to cases of small-scale farmers in other parts of Kenya who have successfully pushed for title deeds to land they lived and worked on for decades.
And in January, officials promised to issue another 500,000 titles around the country by the end of the year.
When they announced the initiative, authorities said priority would go to marginalised communities – a group that includes the Mwea farmers – and Kenyans who have suffered historical land injustices.
NO COLLATERAL, NO LOANS
Until they get title deeds, the farmers have limited resources to invest in their own land or get bank loans, said Anthony Mwai, another farmer on the plantation.
As a solution, some farmers’ groups band together to bypass banks and get uncollateralised loans from microfinance lenders and savings and credit cooperatives to help them boost their output.
However, that method is often unsustainable, Mwai added, because many farmers struggle to pay back their loans due to the low prices they get for their rice, which are set by the NIA.
Farmers sometimes have to sell their rice for as little as 45 Kenyan shillings (about 40 cents) per kilogramme, said the 49-year-old farmer.
But it costs double that amount just to grow and harvest a kilogramme of rice, continued Mwai, who is currently paying back a loan he got as a member of the local Mwea savings and credit cooperative
“With such poor prices, farmers cannot even break even. So, will I use the money to repay a loan or will I feed my family first?,” he wondered aloud.
In a media briefing in February, NIA officials said they had raised the selling price of rice to 85 Kenyan shillings (80 cents) per kilogramme to help farmers meet the rising cost of production.
‘I LIVE AS A SQUATTER’
Data from the NLC shows that less than a fifth of Kenyans own more than 1.5 acres (0.60 hectares) of land, while nearly 15% own no land at all.
Gichobi, the land rights activist, said she and other local activists have been spreading the word about the importance of owning a land title deed and teaching farmers how to represent their cases to land authorities.
“Farmers want title deeds,” Gichobi said. “Because they now know having one will not only solve land problems here, but it will also accelerate economic growth.”
Mururia of the Mwea Foundation, one of the groups that helped the plantation’s farmers win their case, said his group spreads awareness on land rights through meetings hosted by village chiefs, at local football games and women’s groups.
While the farmers wait to one day make their own decisions on how they farm, Julius Muchiri said he and other Mwea farmers have to hire land from neighbouring farms in the hopes of growing enough to pay off their loans and feed their families.
“Look at me. I am an old man with nothing. I still live as a squatter,” Muchiri lamented.
“If the government would give me a title deed for even half an acre of land, I would be very happy.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation.