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June 29, 2011

Once forgotten, Kenya's Tana River delta now target of investors

Tana River has been a largely marginalised and forgotten region.For decades, the only time it appeared in the news was when its feuding communities were at each other's throats over water and grass for their animals and crops. Or when they were swept out of their homes by the river's mighty flood waters.

But not any more. The county is now in the limelight with reports of its vast lands being the target of big corporations and foreign governments who want to exploit them commercially.

This is part of a recent trend in which rich countries in the West and Asia are increasingly looking to Africa to produce food for their growing populations.

... critics have described these leases as 'land grabs,' adding they pose a threat to Africans as they will have nowhere to grow their own food and graze their herds.

But the leases also have powerful backers, including government officials. In Ethiopia, for example, where three million acres have been leased out, the government says this constitutes only three per cent of its arable land.

The mega agriculture projects, the government says, will employ locals and teach them farming skills. Additionally, the land leased out is not in use currently because it is unsuitable for smallholders.


In Tana River County, supporters of the lease, including the county leaders, are using the same argument -- the targeted land is idle yet it could easily be made productive.

Mumias Sugar was the first big corporation to seek land in Tana River. Kenya's leading sugar producer, based in Kakamega, asked for 18,000 hectares to grow cane in a project worth Sh24 billion. However, this project has been shrouded in controversy with pastoral groups and environmentalists opposing it. The groups argue that the project would spell doom for the region and its inhabitants.

The groups, including Nature Kenya, instead want the Government to designate the area, which they claim harbours more than 350 bird species, wildlife and plants, as a national conservation site.

Another private company, MATT International, also showed an interest in converting about 100,000 hectares of land in both Lamu and Tana River to cane plantation.

Then there was the Qatari government which asked for 100,000 hectares for agricultural use in exchange for funding the Lamu Port. However, the plan was dropped after furious opposition from locals and NGOs.

The interest all these investors have shown has helped sell Tana River as a prime region that can produce food both for local consumption and exports.

Indeed, it is a key plank in the Kenya Government's 2009-2011 Economic Stimulus Programme and Vision 2030.

The stimulus package is designed to increase production of maize and rice and to stabilise the country's strategic grain reserve.

The area comprises the largest swathe of the Tana River basin with vast flat lands and a soil rich in nutrients, suitable for a wide range of food crops.

The region's agricultural potential had already been highlighted many years back through the irrigation projects at Bura and Hola and the Tana Delta Irrigation Project.

But it is the Tana Delta Irrigation Project run by Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority at Gamba that has changed the face of food production in the region and thrust Tana River into the limelight as one of the country's top bread baskets.

Tana Delta Irrigation Project (TDIP) will eventually be one of the biggest in the country producing food for export and local consumption.

As the host of these key projects, Tana River will therefore not just have an opportunity to enjoy food security for its population but for the country as a whole.

According to Mr Philip Oloo, the TDIP manager, the entire land available for food production is 200,000 hectares.

TARDA is not just focusing on harnessing the Tana for food production. It is also working on power-generation --High Grand Falls Multi-Purpose Dam Project -- that will augment the current power supply for Kenya.

Those hoping to grow crops for bio-fuels have not been left behind. A Canadian firm is seeking 100,000 hectares to grow the shrub jatropha to make bio-fuel.

allafrica.com

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