This picture and below: red crosses on land-for-sale billboards in Nairobi’s suburbs. February 2017 (© M. Rutten)
Urbanization in Africa is picking up. A significant natural population growth and an influx of, notably, youngsters seeking employment, means that Africa’s major cities are fast becoming multi-million metropoles. Real estate companies are turning low-level (colonial) buildings into high-rise gated apartments for the lucky middle class. Those less fortunate are in search of a place to stay with relatives or friends, mostly in poor housing conditions. Peri-urban zones, notably those near industrial areas, or smaller towns in the outskirts, have become popular destinations. Increasingly, these nuclei are incorporated into the Larger Metropole, often administratively as well as physically. Residential plots become a competitive form of land use, often outpricing land set aside for grazing or small-scale farming. Land prices are skyrocketing to international levels. These profits are mostly ending up in the pockets of the speculators, who bought land from the original owners many years ago. They also sell happily to real estate firms, (international) universities seeking land for new compounds or (agro)industries. The resulting landscape is a complicated mixture of gated housing estates, greenhouses belonging to high-value export-oriented agro companies, noisy and smelly air-polluting factories, dotted with fast-growing shantytowns housing immigrant labourers.
This process raises urgent questions about land-use planning, governance, speculation and administrative responsibility and law enforcement in the outskirts of Africa’s major cities. The policymakers must balance opportunities and risks, ultimately often favouring the financially powerful and letting down the local population, accordingly. The barely controlled market forces at play create new winners and losers. The expanding African city is a golden opportunity for service providers such as the retail, transport and house rental sector. Besides the environmental challenges, the influx of immigrants from other parts of the country into these peri-urban zones brings with it tensions between the newcomers and the original inhabitants.
In the Nairobi periphery the original inhabitants, Maasai nomadic pastoralists, are driving their herds along the main roads and the newly erected fences seeking some fresh grass. Beneath the surface, another competition takes place as many water tables are fast being depleted due to the uncontrolled sinking of new boreholes owned by well-to-do newcomers, drying the shallow wells of the less fortunate, both immigrant small farmers and Maasai pastoralists. Moreover, the air pollution (bad smells and black fumes) is irritating people’s respiratory organs and eyes. Locals have protested by going to court, writing petitions to the administration and, more recently, by invading bars and blocking roads. The latest form of protest, so it seems, has been the painting of billboards advertising land for sale or for selling housing schemes. But reality on the ground differs. The red crosses have been painted by the local authorities, whose highest representative, the Kajiado County Governor, has promised to stop the indiscriminate sell out of land. To that end a moratorium was put in place. It has made him popular among the ordinary Maasai pastoralists and an enemy to some Maasai elite, most of them political rivals who, supported by Lands Ministry officials, have been linked to shady land deals. The red crosses, rumoured to have been put to earmark billboards that have encroached too close to the road, might actually be reminders to vote the Governor back to office come the next election, due in August 2017.
The role of Nairobi-based cartels and local land brokers is crucial in the business of transferring land ownership. Huge chunks of land have been lost at too cheap a price for the last three decades. Young Maasai realize that they will face serious problems accessing land and water for their livestock or for growing crops. They are frustrated that their future is at risk, while enormous financial profits are made by outside cartels assisted by local brokers, among them chiefs and reverends. It has brewed a poisonous cocktail that, for now, consists only of red paint, but which could well turn bloody, unless an inclusive path of development is chosen. All signs, however, indicate that poorly educated livestock keepers, most notably women, have missed that train.
The local authorities and National Land Commission should take heed of these signs serious. For many, access to land remains a crucial precondition to making a living. Although diversification and jobs outside agriculture are also sought after, this is not an option for a majority of the locals. Over time, education will increase chances for locals, but in the meantime these peaceful protests should be taken seriously and programmes of job creation, preferably livestock related, i.e. in the field of livestock products, livestock upgrading and marketing. A growing urban population will seek those products in rising quantities. But other opportunities, notably for a growing number of educated Maasai youngsters, are needed as well. In addition, the negative effects of the (agro)industrial enterprises must be curbed, especially those operating at the expense of the environment. These companies should comply with existing or better legislation, not just in words but in practice. The alternative will be having to face a growing army of frustrated youths, some of whom are already involved in dubious or illegal practices, wasting time, playing pool, drinking to excess or taking drugs. All efforts are needed to make sure this warning is not a silent one ahead of a devastating storm.
For more information about land brokers and the position of women towards land in relation to the relevant new land and marriage laws in Kenya, please read these background documents.