Young rural Kenyans have headed to urban centres for decades, a movement that is only increasing as farming becomes more difficult and seemingly less profitable. Technology helps catalyse this process, and it is part of the urban allure. But technology also has potential to render farming more profitable, which could reverse this trend. Looking at Martin Amwai’s journey from his rural village Kakamega to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, illuminates the present situation of farming in Kenya and its effects on rural to urban migration by young Kenyans.

From rural farming to urban driving

Rural market place in Nanyuki, Kenya (source: Ema Excell)

Martin is in his mid-thirties, a taxi driver from Kakamega, Western Kenya, living in Nairobi with his wife and two-year-old son. Having assessed the “difficult” farming situation in his village, he said to himself, “Let me go to the city and look for something that can give me some money, some extra money.” Six years on with two cars of his own and one rented, Martin is driving for his own taxi business. Although his success – undoubtedly linked to hard work, determination, charm and perhaps good timing – sets Martin apart from many young rural men who struggle to make a living in Kenya’s demanding capital, his story is at least indicative of a common migration trend seen across East Africa. What does the “difficult” farming reality that Martin mentions, look like and what other factors shape young Kenyans’ decision to move to urban centres?

Farming in Kenya

Agriculture is central to Kenya’s economy and to the livelihoods of millions of Kenyans. About 69% of the economically active population work in agriculture; in turn, this sector contributes 65% of the country’s total exports and 30% of GDP. Agriculture in Kenya is predominately based on smallholders growing the bulk of total production (75%). The popular make-over television show Shamba Shape Up (shamba is kiswahili for ‘farm’), gives a good sense of what smallholder farming looks like in this part of the world. On an average of 4-6 acres, farmers use simple tools such as the hoe-like jembe to prepare land and cut weeds. Smallholders in Kenya work hard to farm a mix of maize (main crop), sorghum, millet, pigeon peas, beans, bananas and tomatoes, as well as cash crops such as tea and coffee. Cows, goats and chicken are among the main livestock typically kept by farmers here. Challenges to farming are multiple: soils are poor due to lack of nutrients, with little to no soil testing or use of fertilisers; land pressures, from a growing population and traditional inheritance customs; climate variability (droughts, followed by floods when it finally rains); and not least, an increasingly older population whose farms are abandoned when they pass away. Indeed, traditional inheritance in Kenya, like much of East Africa, holds that land is divided on patrilineal lines – sons inherit the land once the father dies. This tradition holds two crucial consequences: farm acreage diminishes in size as it is passed on – a 12-acre plot divided among four sons, leaves each with just three acres to farm on; and by the time that the smallholder passes away, most of their children have left and settled elsewhere and they are not interested in returning to the farm. So, there is a lot to deter a young person from taking on their own shamba.

In this light, Martin explains that besides the re-occurring droughts that have visited his village, the division of his parent’s farm between himself and his three brothers means less land for him to farm. In 21st century Sub-Saharan Africa, famers are no longer purely subsistence farmers, but are increasingly integrated into a market economy. Beyond basic food consumption, they rely on a cash income to improve their well-being. Farming on less than five acres of land requires a lot of innovation and adaptation, in order to make a decent living. While Martin moved to Nairobi to find work, his brother moved to El Doret, the nearest urban center to Kakamega. They both continue to support their family financially, especially during periods of drought. But money isn’t the only way Martin keeps a close connection to home. He tells me that at the end of the season, he usually drives back to pick up the tomato harvest which he sells in Nairobi because as he says, “The price is better.” His siblings and mother are taking care of his plot at the moment, but, in fact, his dream is to retire in Kakamega. For all the strife that comes with young men leaving rural villages, money transferred by migrants to their families at home, goes a long way towards supporting them.

Urban Hustle

Anna Campbell, director of the Kenyan reality TV show Don’t Lose the Plot, which aims to make farming an attractive career option for young Kenyans, tells me that there is a real stigma around farming. “It’s enough for one individual to come back with the newest cell phone, mitumba clothes [second hand clothes from Western countries considered modern and trendy] and the air of money, to send out the message ‘business is much cooler than farming’, she says. For young rural Kenyans the city represents a myriad of things: glamour, high-life, money and future prospects are certainly notable. Some are able to put their education to use and secure well-paying jobs, those with less formal education such as Martin, work hard and long hours to make a decent living. For others survival alone becomes a real challenge.

While Martin set off to Nairobi on his own in 2009, he was followed by many others from his village. For instance, upon seeing that he was able to get a job, his cousins followed in his footsteps. When I asked him whether they had also found work, he hesitates for a second and tells me that making a living in Nairobi is really hard. It depends a lot on your connections and the business you enter into. He tells me that many set up little dukas (kiosks) but barely get by, while others end up doing casual work for very little pay.

Looking at the reasons for significant out-migration from Siaya and Vihiga counties in Western Kenya to Kisumu and Nairobi, Linda Oucho, Volla Oucho and Vollan Ochieng confirm these factors and add that many youngsters resist returning to their village when they are not able to find work in the larger cities. The authors quote a mother who laments, “My son has not found a job in Nairobi and he is not willing to come back and help me on the farm.” Perhaps it is unsurprising that young, motivated Kenyans, who feel they have “nothing keeping them in the villages”, head to urban centres – after all, similar trends are seen across the world, not least in Europe where entire villages have become abandoned as the young population seeks employment, prosperity or education elsewhere. Nonetheless, with many East African cities unable to offer improved prospects to growing numbers of urban dwellers, and with agriculture remaining central to household food security and income, ensuring farming remains an attractive career option for Kenya’s future generations is vital.

Beyond subsistence: Technology and making a career of farming

Anna points to another crucial factor within the dichotomy of farming and migration: “How much technology and internet services are available in rural areas is really affecting this movement away from farming for the youth.” Much migration away from rural areas has been attributed to technological development – technology is a catalyst that offers a glimpse of a prosperous, modern future. However, it also provides an opportunity to successfully farm, amidst the myriad of challenges that exist. Technology reaches into and beyond the Rift Valley, with television programmes that teach about soil testing, water harvesting and farm finance, taken seriously by farmers in places as remote as Laikipia, Gucha or Baringo. Weather forecasts sent out to mobile phones are used to determine planting dates and mobile money transfers allow remittances to be sent home at a click. Don’t Lose the Plot and other radio and mobile phone applications produced by Mediae Company and iShamba seize the dynamic of technological development and go a long way in making farming a more attractive, sustainable and also profitable business for farmers across East Africa. Through their reality TV show, Anna and her colleagues want to promote farming as a respectable career path, thereby overturning the image of farming as a last resort for youngsters who do poorly at school – as she says, “We want people to say ‘this was a choice’.”

This is the first article of two looking at Kenyan farming and increasing urban migration. How can farming be made more attractive to young Kenyans and what could the future of farming look like in the country?

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