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Walking the talk of ‘trickle down’ in Kenya

The failure of Kenya's new government to deliver on promises of jobs is leaving the poor increasingly frustrated. Small coffee plantations in particular continue to languish in poverty.

Donald Mwangi casts a weary eye on the valley below as he swings in a wooden rocking chair. Some 16 months after a new government came to power, the 37-year-old farmer is still waiting to see some results – 'at least get a job', as he casually puts it.

Although he no longer pays primary school levies, abolished after President Mwai Kibaki won the December 2002 general elections, Mwangi still has to find money to buy school uniform and feed his four children aged between 4 and 12.

The poverty reduction strategies unveiled by Kibaki's government last year are still a mirage to him, its benefits yet to reach his village, Kiharu, on the slopes of central Kenya's Nyandarwa ridges.

Mwangi had staked his hope on the four-acre coffee farm below his mud-walled house, 86 km north of Nairobi. But the promised coffee sector reforms are taking 'too long' to bear fruit and Mwangi's patience, like that of many others in poor rural households, is about to snap. He now wants a job.

Mwangi's youngest brother, 32-year-old Ephraim Mwaniki says the government 'lied' when it said it will create 500,000 jobs every year. 'We are still here where they left us when they came for our votes,' he says of politicians of the ruling National Rainbow Coalition.

Although the Kenyan economy was expected to grow after the removal of the Daniel arap Moi's regime, officials now reluctantly admit that it has not performed as expected.

'We never said that we would deliver everything in one year, let alone one month,' says Economic Planning Minister, Prof Peter Anyang' Nyong'o. 'It may take as many as five years before the results are clearly evident.'

The national poverty strategy draws heavily on a plan drafted by the previous government along with civil society, International Monetary Fund and World Bank officials. The current plan has to be approved by these financial institutions for Kenya to qualify for debt relief and nearly US$ 4 billion in aid, but some donors are said to be holding out.

Creating employment in the ailing coffee sector through foreign investment is one of the aims of the plan.

'We are looking for investments in the coffee sector that could add value to our produce,' says Njeru Ndwiga, the Cooperatives Development Minister, who hopes that small-scale farmers like Mwangi will stay on. 'We are soon buying state-of-the-art machines for roasting, grinding and packaging coffee and are seeking new markets.'

Agriculture minister Kipruto Kirwa says 'too many vested interests' are the root cause of the slow pace of proposed changes to the coffee industry.

These 'vested interests' include large-scale farmers and small-scale producers. When the World Bank and IMF pressured Kenya to liberalise its coffee sector in 1995, giant cooperatives formerly controlled by the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, which was owned by farmers, were split up and taken over by newly licensed millers. Most of these are on the verge of collapse now and owe creditors US$ 150 million in outstanding debts, according to a recent study by the Agriculture ministry.

Currently Kenya's estimated 600,000 smallholders -people like Mwangi – account for 58 per cent of coffee production. But they have witnessed growing poverty on the farms, mainly due to high costs of production, lack of credit, poor infrastructure and low prices.

Coffee production has plummeted from 130,000 tonnes in 1988 to 56,000 tonnes in 2003.

At an investors conference held in March 2004 in Nairobi, Baroness Lynda Chalker, a former British aid minister and an adviser to the World Bank, said, 'Kenya is a country of great opportunities. But one or two years are not enough to properly assess any government's economic success or failure. Even in the West, it takes about four years to come up with proper reforms.'

But investors worry that many key investment laws are not in place and this is leaving the likes of Mwangi minus the promised jobs. The East African-American Business Council (EAABC) wants the government to hasten the implementation of laws that will attract foreign investment.

Another task, as part of IMF/World Bank conditions, is to finalise the privatisation of some state-owned units and curb the theft of public funds.

Meanwhile, an Interim Investment Programme released by the government in March shows that most of the promises made during the 2002 elections campaign simply cannot be delivered – at least not until 2006.

'Most of the growth targets that were published last year have been revised downwards,' says Dennis Kabaara, a director at the Institute of Economic affairs, a local think tank.

Business commentator Gordon Opiyo says: 'The economic revival strategy has not yet taken off. More people in rural areas are falling below the poverty line.'

Planning minister Nyong'o says that 'to survive Kenyans have to be optimists'.

But critics think the poverty strategy lost its focus at the inception. 'Its underlying philosophy is to increase the wealth of the investors, and to have some of it percolate to the poor through jobs and other amenities,' says Mutahi Ngunyi, a political analyst and critic of the Kibaki government. 'Such an approach will create jobs alright, but it will not create opportunities for people with dreams of joining the 'investor club'.'

He says a better strategy would have been to target both investors and the poor equally. 'Instead of creating wealth among the investors and having it spill over to the poor, the government should have looked for more concrete means of creating wealth from below.'

For those in the rural areas waiting for wealth to trickle down the long wait has just started.

'For a man to be relevant he has to feed his family,' says Mwangi. 'We might just become irrelevant.'

John Kamau is a well-known Kenyan freelance journalist and columnist.

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