Postcard from Kenya

2 September 2011

Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom has just returned from a six-month research trip in Kenya as part of his PhD studies into food security at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies. Tim writes about his experiences here.

I'm interested in the impact foreign agricultural investments - or 'land grabs' as the media sometimes call them - can have on local and domestic food security as well as the different types of conflict they can cause.

Many of these investment deals have been in place since the global food price crisis in 2008, when states and private investors became much more aware of the value of agricultural land. Most of these land deals are still on paper so we can't assess their real-world impact but, unusually, in Kenya I found an example of a project which is up and running, so I could measure its progress.

Kenya is one of Africa's most economically and politically stable countries, but it has a rapidly growing population - more than half of Kenyans are aged between 15 and 29. As a result, domestic pressures on food, water and land are increasing greatly. Add to this the interest of foreign investors in vast amounts of agricultural land, and you have a potentially volatile scenario.

So, over the last six months I have called Nairobi 'home' but I spent most of my time in two rural areas: the Yala Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria in west Kenya and the Tana river delta on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast.

The main focus of my research in the Yala swamp was to study an American company's investment that aims to bring 7000 hectares - 40 percent of the swamp - into agricultural production. The intention is to bring employment, food security and, hopefully, agricultural education and knowledge transfer to a region which has high levels of poverty.

However, this wetland area is one of Kenya's biodiversity hotspots so the investment has sparked disputes over possible threats to biodiversity, and the management of local food and water resources.

I interviewed local residents, company employees, local government officers, environmentalists and many other people connected to the issue. The people I came into contact with were enormously supportive - they were genuinely interested in my research and hoped it could make a difference.

Unfortunately, seven years into the investment there is a sense of disappointment and disbelief within parts of the communities. But, while the situation in the Yala Swamp is extremely complex, I have seen positive signs and do not believe it is a case of a foreign company exploiting a local community and giving nothing in return. The problems and ongoing challenges range from local political involvement to miscommunication and cultural and social misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, I believe my research has been extremely valuable. There is an important link between food and security that is very much under-researched and I'm hoping my thesis can address this. I'm planning to include several practical recommendations that can be implemented in both current and future investment projects.

My time in Kenya was enriching in so many other ways. I was exposed to local traditions, learned some basic Swahili and was regularly moved on a personal level when in the most strenuous of situations the Kenyan people I met remained optimistic and believed they would soon see better days.

When I was in the Tana river delta, just south of the where the current famine crisis has its epicentre, I interviewed several local communities already suffering from drought. I saw cattle die in front of me and heard the sad cries for help of local tribesmen who simply didn't know where to get sufficient food and safe water.

Over the last few weeks, you may have seen pictures of the famine crisis in Somalia and northern parts of Kenya, which is caused by the same drought. Thousands of Somalis are fleeing the affected area and entering Kenya as refugees. This has put great strains on the already difficult food situation in Kenya, which in turn creates tensions between the Kenyans and Somalis that now increasingly have to compete for the same natural resources: food, water and land.

That's one example of why it's so important to me to help improve our understanding of food and its impact on security. In the long term our work will make a structural difference to the lives of real people.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

Email: 390116054c1063001f3b302c12431e252f54041e13230810386c022903431412