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Unintended consequences and failed development: Rethinking how we support agricultural prosperity in Elgyeo Marakwet County, Kenya

Dr Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe and Professor Henrietta Moore


The dry plains of the semi-arid Kerio Valley, northwest Kenya, have long been a focal point for agricultural interventions striving to create rural prosperity. Built on the unwavering premise that improving agrarian life is achieved through market integration and economic growth, a century of imposed development has seen the introduction of numerous schemes promoting cash cropping, infrastructural modernisation and land enclosure. The success of this interventionist history, however, is questionable, with few government and NGO led projects enduring. Projects that have managed to achieve a lasting legacy have done so not because they were well-designed, but because they became integrated into resilient and historically rooted regimes of innovative agricultural production that are characteristic of regional community life.


Such is the crux of an pioneering piece of long term research recently published by IGP researchers, PROCOL Africa Citizen Scientists and collaborators at the University of Eldoret and University of Cambridge. Led by Professor Henrietta Moore and Dr Matthew Davies, this research program followed the design, implementation and subsequent collapse of the Red Cross funded Tot-Kolowa irrigation project – a scheme that sought to reshape regional food production through the implementation of a fixed pipe system and provision of agricultural inputs for cash cropping. PROCOL Africa’s Citizen Science team traced this narrative over a period of ten years, undertaking repeat interviews with participant farmers in order to understand the lived realities of imposed development, including both positive and negative responses to the scheme’s participatory obligations and its wider impact on community resilience.

Sign indicating the management and funding of the Tot-Kolowa irrigation scheme. Image: Matthew Davies

Results from this work demonstrate how the Tot-Kolowa irrigation scheme was foisted atop of much older systems of locally developed sustainable agriculture. Indeed, farmers across the region have long experimented on their own terms with diverse forms of cultivation, maintaining agri-biodiversity across a complex mosaic of long and short fallow field systems. Successful cultivation across this landscape is supported by over 300km of irrigation channels and has been in operation for at least two centuries. This network is constantly shifting as channels are opened, closed and diverted to replenish soils and irrigate cereal crops and horticultural foodstuffs. The result is a landscape constantly in motion, emerging out of complex interactions and decision-making processes that manifest as a form of cultural resilience that has adapted to ever unfolding demographic and environmental pressures. This is not to say that the life in the Kerio Valley is without significant challenges – drought, flooding, soil degradation and population growth all remain a part of lived experience. Rather, it is to say that the knowledge for navigating these ever-shifting conditions has long been a part of community life as people look to build thriving socioecological relationships.

Traditional Marakwet aqueduct (poroi) distributing water along the slopes of the Elgeyo Escarpment. Image Credit: Matthew Davies

Despite these histories of agricultural resilience, the impending climate and biodiversity crisis continues to fuel imaginings of the Kerio Valley as being on the verge of collapse and in dire need of intervention. Such was the rationale for the Tot-Kolowa Irrigation scheme, where project planners approached livelihood insecurity primarily as a technical challenge to be solved by ‘modernising’ older forms land management to intensify food production. The resultant project design saw gravity fed water being piped to two 500-acre plots on the valley floor. Whilst this design was thought to be able to facilitate greater levels of intensive farming, the spatial fixity of the project meant that it lacked the ability to move across the wider landscape. Such inflexibility stood in stark contrast to older forms of agriculture, where gullies and poor soils could be easily avoided, water channels diverted, extended and easily repaired and cultivated land parcels left to regenerate. Conversely, the Tot-Kolowa scheme was unable to accommodate for variable soil quality, and with broken piping and inadequate water pressure being costly enterprises to fix, participant farmers quickly readjusted their expectations as to how successful the scheme would actually be in improving livelihood security. More problematically, the project disrupted pre-existing and delicate land tenure systems and, in the process, inadvertently aggravated existing tensions in the region. With broken infrastructure and escalating conflict, the Red Cross ultimately ceased operations, and abandoned the project after just two seasons.

Broken and abandoned infrastructure from the Tot Kolowa Irrigation Scheme. Image Credit: Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe.

With hindsight, the design of the Tot-Kolowa scheme will hopefully seem an historic anomaly – the short-lived product of a dated twentieth-century rationality that attempted to treat complex socio-political and socioecological problems as a simple technocratic solution building exercise. This said, in light of news that the County Government are interested in resurrecting the scheme, it is more pertinent than ever to understand how place-based forms of prosperity can only be realized by building on, rather than undermining, existing community knowledge and practice. It is in this vein that IGP have been working on a Policy Brief to inform government officials and NGO personnel on how we may design better futures. This must first involve working directly with participant farmers to understand the fundamental failures of the Tot Kolowa irrigation scheme. From this, we must adopt a process of co-design that brings together diverse expertise alongside local community knowledge to provide more holistic solutions that address the complex and interconnected issues of food production, ecological health and livelihood prosperity.



Thanks are due to all of our co-authors, Dr Matthew Davies (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge) Mallory Bernstein (Africa Health Research Institute), Nelson Bailengo (PROCOL Africa), Helena Cheptoo (PROCOL Africa), Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto (PROCOL Africa), Dr David Kay (Oxford Archaeology) and Dr Wilson Kipkore (University of Eldoret). We are also grateful to members of the wider Marakwet Citizen Science Research Team, including Noah Kiplagat, Andrew Kibet Yano, Joseph Kimutai Cheptorus and Thomson Kiptum.


The paper was published Open Access in Africa on 29 May 2024.


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