LSE’s Martin Namasaka looks at how Machakos county has overcome challenges such as drought and overpopulation to become Kenya’s best performing region.

Renowned economists Thomas Robert Malthus and Ester Boserup present contrasting views on the ratio of population to a land’s resources. In the 18th century, Malthus argued that if the population grew at faster rate than food production, then there would need to be a check in population growth. Boserup, on the other hand, claimed that human innovation and technology would allow food production to keep up with population growth. Who was right, if either? The Machakos county in Kenya presents an interesting case study.

The Machakos county in Kenya is a hilly drought-prone farming region 50 km south of the capital city of Nairobi, and is a great subject for examining how an increase in farming productivity through agricultural innovation was triggered by population growth.

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Machakos of 1969 contrasted with the county today which is the best-performing in Kenya

Machakos is inhabited by the Akamba tribe, who practise subsistence agriculture. They grow drought-resistant crops such as sorghum, maize, beans and millet. From 1930 to 1990, the county’s population grew from 238,000 to 1,393,000 as a result of being confined in the Ukamba reserve by the British colonial government. Although they were allowed to settle on the semi-arid crown lands in 1962, population growth drastically reduced the amount of land available to less than a hectare per person.

Overpopulated in relation to its carrying capacity, the area displayed every phase of land misuse (Tiffen and Mortimore 1994). In an effort to curb soil erosion, soil conservation efforts were set up, with compulsory labour on terracing and planting grass two mornings a week under the leadership of Colin Mehar, then the government’s soil conservation officer.

Due to the high tendency of drought in the region, they planted drought-resistant maize seedlings, locally known as Katumani Composite B (KCB) maize. In addition, they identified and incorporated 35 field and horticultural crops, five tillage technologies and six methods of soil fertility management which incorporated the use of green manure cover crops. As a result, the county’s dependency on imported food declined (Tiffen et al., 1994, p. 40-41).

The Akamba conserved the environment, reduced birth rates, stepped up their use of animal fertilisers known as boma manure, sold food to burgeoning markets in nearby Nairobi, intensified livestock feeding systems and irrigation as well as ox plough cultivation. Indeed, these were all pivotal in the agricultural transformation of the area.

Equally important were the sources of investment capital from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Machakos Integrated Development Project, the Catholic Diocese as well as the Kenyan government. The funds were invested not only in terracing and ploughs but also in water conservation and acquiring hired labour. 8,500 km of terraces were built annually between 1981 and 1985. A 1998–99 survey of 484 fields in Machakos suggested that about 60 percent of the fields were terraced; many farmers also used additional conservation measures (Zaal 1999:5).

The social and institutional factors that facilitated the transformation included the formation of Mwethya groups after the abolition of compulsory work by the British farmers. These groups were used as community rotational labour and contributed to fruit tree planting and terracing. The Mwethya groups, in turn, boosted women’s leadership and participation in the community.

Migration to urban areas and the participation of the Akamba men in the Second World War provided a flow of remittances that augmented capital for agricultural development. Subsequently, the Christian missionary schools and access to markets facilitated formal education, acquisition of technical knowledge and experimental attitudes. Education gave access to employment providing income for capital intensive improvements in the county. Economic stability made families invest in education, resulting to lower birth rates (World Resources 2000-2001, p.149-158).

Machakos is currently seen as the country’s best performing county in terms of development and its population drop. Under the leadership of Governor Alfred Mutua, the county attracted more than US$600,000,000 worth of investment in just 2013 from 40 foreign and local investors in various sectors including tourism, real estate, health and emergency services. Consequently, it has the only open-field amphitheatre on the African continent as well as the fastest built highway (33 km in three months) in Africa.

Even though, benefits of the Machakos “miracle” have not reached everyone, especially the poor, the experience undoubtedly challenges the pessimistic perspectives of Malthus, with his gloomy prediction that more people would doom us to a “gigantic inevitable famine.”

For Boserup’s principles to work, it seems that the key is gaining access to relevant technology, infrastructure, inclusive institutions, markets, and locally informed policies in order to address population growth, resource scarcity and environmental adaptation.

Martin Namasaka is a post-graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He graduated from the University of Nairobi with a B.A in Development Communication, and is passionate about International Development. Follow him on Twitter @Martinnamasaka.

Contact: m.m.namasaka@lse.ac.uk