Peasant Response to Agricultural Innovations: Land Consolidation, Agrarian Diversification and Technical Change. the Case of Bungoma District in Western Kenya, 1954-1960

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INTRODUCTION

Goran Hyden's analysis of Tanzanian peasant society subscribed to the view that capital and state policies exercise a very limited impact (if any) on rural agrarian economies in Africa. (1) Hyden argued that peasant societies are conditioned by a moral economy which renders them both resistant and repulsive to innovation and change. (2) This article utilizes the case study of Bungoma district (3) in Western Kenya to argue that Hyden's analysis grossly underestimated the propensity of African rural households to respond positively to economic incentives with a view to modernizing their agrarian economies. Moreover, studies treating agrarian change in Kenya's rural areas have tended to be lop-sided in favor of central Kenya. (4) Western Kenya has often attracted attention more as a reservoir of labor power than as a producer of agricultural surpluses. (5)

The context of the article is situated within the policy debate that preoccupied the Department of Agriculture in colonial Kenya with regard to how best to transform the rural areas particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. In this debate, the view that eventually held sway sought to promote greater rural agrarian commercialization through a system of rewards that would appeal to the emerging class of African farmers in the rural reserves, thereby facilitating the voluntary support of the colonial state's agricultural betterment campaign. Thus, the colonial state employed the mechanisms of co-opting the forces of rural commercialization through the strategies of land consolidation, enclosure, and allowing African involvement in the growing of high-value cash crops. The article demonstrates that rural households in Bungoma district responded quite positively to these agricultural innovations. In a sense, therefore, it vindicates Robert Chamber's contention that innovations which rural farmers can manage, and which they find are good, spread very rapidly indeed through innumerable personal trials. (6)

THE SWYNNERTON PLAN AND THE ORIGINS OF LAND CONSOLIDATION

On 24th September 1953, a meeting with Provincial Commissioners (PCs) was held at government house in Nairobi. During this meeting, the colonial state decided that a five year plan aimed at accelerating agricultural development in African land units within Kenya be drawn up. (7) An interest free loan amounting to approximately 5,000,000 [pounds sterling] procured from the metropolitan government in London was also proposed as essential in bringing this anticipated plan to fruition. (8) It was against this background that towards the end of 1953, Assistant Director of Agriculture, R.J.M. Swynnerton, was called upon to prepare a comprehensive five year plan for the intensification and development of African agriculture. The plan was endorsed and accepted by the Kenya government as the framework within which the development of African agriculture should proceed. Following these developments, Her Majesty's government in the United Kingdom made a grant of 5,000,000 [pounds sterling] to meet a significant part of the costs of implementing the plan. This set the stage by the end of 1953 for what the Department of Agriculture described as "a new era in African agriculture." (9)

THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE SWYNNERTON PLAN

The outcome of R.J.M. Swynnerton's efforts was the publication in 1954 of a blue print for the development of African Agriculture in Kenya titled: A Plan to Intensify the Development of African Agriculture in Kenya. Taking precedence among Swynnerton's proposals was a program of land tenure reform. To this end, a system of land tenure which would avail to the African farmer a unit of land permitting a system of farming with sufficient productivity to support households at levels commensurate with other occupations emerged as a critical prerequisite to the development of sound agricultural practices in African areas. The Swynnerton plan faulted the prevalent African customary land tenure systems not only for aggravating problems of land fragmentation, but also for hampering the adoption, development and diffusion of sound and intensified fanning procedures such as crop rotations, the carting and application of manure, and the establishment and management of grass leys. …