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Implications of Agricultural Land Subdivision in Kenya

Subdivision of agricultural land into small and often uneconomical sizes is not a unique challenge to Kenya but rather a global concern. The Constitution of Kenya, the Lands Act (2012), the National Land Policy (2009) and the National Land Use Policy (2017) have all identified subdivision of agricultural land as an issue that requires policy attention. The practice is not only eroding the foundation of the country’s agriculture sector, but it also threatens food security and the sustainable future of the nation.

Kenya has a total land area covering 576,076 km2. Only 20 per cent of this land is of high and medium potential with adequate and reliable rainfall for arable agriculture. The bulk (98%) of the farm holdings in Kenya are small (average 1.2 ha), lie mainly in the high potential areas and occupy 46 per cent of total farmed land area. The medium farms of 10-60 ha (average 20.0 ha) account for 1.9 per cent the holdings occupy 15 per cent of land area, while large farms averaging 77.8 ha (more than 50% larger than 200.0 ha) account for only 0.1 per cent of farm holdings but occupy 39 per cent of total land area. In addition, over the years, arable land per capita has also been on the decline in Kenya. As shown in Figure 1.1, arable land per capita has reduced from 0.42 ha in 1961 to 0.11 ha in 2020 and the trend continues (World Bank, 2023).

Figure 1.1: Kenya’s arable land per person (1960-2020)

Source: World Bank (2023)

In addition, rapid urbanization and the resultant increase of real estate projects is putting pressure on agricultural land. The share of urban to total population grew from 23.9 per cent to 28.5 per cent between 2011 and 2021. Devolution has seen growth of towns even in formerly rural areas creating a demand for residential houses for commercial use. This has led to increased pressure on agricultural land, resulting in its conversion to urban uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial. While these alternative land uses have led to growth in the real estate sector, averaging 5.7 per cent in the last five years, agricultural growth has averaged 2.2 per cent over the same period, signifying low agricultural growth and implied productivity.

In many Kenyan communities, it is customary for children to inherit land from their parents, and this tradition has been upheld across generations. However, this has led to subdivision of land, resulting in smaller land holdings as families continue to adhere to this cultural practice. Over time, the available land has decreased in size due to this subdivision.

Policy Interventions and Gaps

Article 60 of the Constitution of Kenya provides that land shall be held, used and managed in a manner that is equitable, efficient, productive and sustainable. The Article also empowers Parliament to provide for minimum and maximum acreage in respect of private land. In the same vein, the Land Act 2012 requires the Cabinet Secretary responsible for land matters to commission a scientific study to determine the economic viability of minimum and maximum acreages in respect of private land for various land zones in the country, but this is yet to be carried out. There has been an attempt to have a law to provide for minimum and maximum land holding through the Kenya Minimum and Maximum Land Holding Acreage Bill, 2015. However, efforts to pass the law have not borne any fruits following stalling of the bill.

The Land Control Act, Cap 302 revised in 2012, provides for controlling transactions in agricultural land. The Act provides for the establishment of a land control board for every land control area. The boards control transactions such as sale, transfer, lease, mortgage, exchange, partition, of agricultural land which results in two or more parcels to be held under separate titles. The boards have meetings with interested parties to determine the appropriateness of land transactions, the outcome thereof being consent issue or denial. However, sometimes land subdivisions that are not supported by law are authorized through the boards.

The National Land Policy, 2009 and the National Land Use Policy of 2017 provide legal, administrative, institutional, and technological frameworks. The frameworks address the optimal utilization and productivity of land-related resources in a sustainable and desirable manner at the national, county, and community levels. More specifically, the National Land Policy envisions that the government shall provide for the implementation of cluster settlements to stop uncontrolled subdivision of land. However, the implementation of clustered settlement is yet to be implemented.

The Kenya National Spatial Plan (2015-2045) envisions the use of land in a manner that promotes optimal productivity, sustainability, efficiency, and equity. It spells out the need to control the subdivision of agricultural land, especially for urbanization. It also serves as a model for County Governments to come up with respective spatial plans, recognizing that the County Governments Act of 2012 provides that counties are responsible for physical planning within their boundaries. However, only a few counties have developed and operationalized their own County Physical and Land use Development Plans and Development control policies. They include Kajiado, Kiambu, Makueni, and Taita Taveta. The successes of these plans will majorly rely on how well the plans are implemented.

With devolution, the power to control land use and development in Kenya is vested in the County Governments. Consequently, some counties have developed and approved master plans to guide the use of land within their boundaries. If a property owner intends to develop their land for any purpose other than what is already earmarked in the approved master plan, they make an application along with relevant documents to the respective County Governments’ Department of Physical Planning. The application is considered by a registered physical planner who works for the County Government. Nevertheless, the decentralization of this regulatory function has made it easier to convert land use, which has resulted in increased subdivision of agricultural land. In addition, most counties do not have policies for guiding change of use for land, implying that any application for change of use could succeed.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Addressing the issue of agricultural land subdivision requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that takes into consideration the various drivers and implications, while involving all stakeholders, including the government, the public, the private sector, and communities. Among the recommendations that can be considered include the following:

  1. Actualize the proposed scientific study in the Land Act to provide a basis for the establishment of a regulation to address the issue of economic land holding.
  2. Develop a framework for increased oversight and accountability within land control boards. This can be achieved through the establishment of clear guiding structures for their work, regular reporting and monitoring and auditing the work of the boards.
  3. Support the development of policies and plans to guide the implementation of cluster settlements at both the national and county levels. This can be done through identifying and zoning high potential agricultural land for preservation while also zoning land for cluster settlements.
  4. Strengthen the legal framework governing land subdivision in Kenya by putting in place measures to ensure that the laws governing land subdivision are enforceable. This can be achieved through strengthening institutional capacity, conducting public awareness and education campaigns, monitoring and enforcing laws and collaborating with stakeholders.
  5. Develop comprehensive policies and guidelines for guiding the change of land use. Applications for change of use should undergo assessment to determine viability and impact.

By Kelvin Kamunye and Catherine Nyaboke, KIPPRA Young Professionals

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