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Miraa Farmers Blame Somali Traders For Woes
By Lawrence Kinoti
Meru, Kenya, 7 Sept. 2007 - "Vision 2030 is coming to you," a Ministry of Planning advert reads.
Recently, leaders from Meru North, Central, South and Tharaka districts, met in Meru Town to hear what the vision entails.
But even as ministry officials planned to take the leaders through the Government’s envisioned prosperous Kenya in 23 years’ time, poor residents of Meru North District were asking themselves why they suffer amidst plenty.
The district is the cradle of the multi-billion shilling miraa trade, but residents and farmers wallow in poverty. Here, vision 2030 is a dream – an apparition.
From the early 1980s, a few local traders dominated miraa trade. Then in 1993 Somali traders, who used to wait for the produce at various destinations, came right into the farms.
Somali capital penetrated the countryside through the willing leaser-willing lessee contracts, but shorn of the Meru culture and normative buffers moderating Meru to Meru agreements.
Whereas these contracts previously seldom exceeded six months, the disproportionate profits realised by Somali traders allowed them to rent the harvests of individual farms for longer periods.
Farmers get paid for their produce every day and burn the cash daily without saving.
The Nyambene Miraa Traders Association (Nyamita), after its establishment in 1996, set out to mobilise the youth to start up a micro-saving scheme in which remittance was to be done monthly. The scheme never took off and the organisers later found out that illiteracy was their challenge.
New form of slavery
The Nyamita chairman, Mr Leadrew Baariu, says, "The local people do not understand the need for a micro-finance savings scheme."
The invasion by traders and foreigners reduced the incomes of local farmers by more than half and it also easily became a permanent arrangement reducing them to peasants on patches of land, that is the home compound surrounded by miraa trees.
The local economy tightened as marketing profits formerly circulating in Meru North were directed to outside the district.
In the process, some of the indigenous traders were ran out of their business as incoming Somali traders brought in their kinsmen to tend the rented crop, harvest and pack the produce for sale.
They also took over the transport business, leaving the locals with nothing for subsistence.
The farmers complain that the outsiders, who control the export market, marginalise them.
The dislodged locals are yet to relocate their bearing in the industry.
Miraa is an economic, social, cultural, political, ethnic, religious, educational, health and also a sexual issue to the Merus of Igembe and Tigania.
There is no aspect of the miraa growing society, including the nutrition of its people that is not touched by miraa.
The district is home to two sub-sectors of the Meru polity; the agriculturally-oriented Igembe and the formally pastoral-oriented Tigania, who except in Karama, Gatithine and Mikinduri areas, opted for more conventional ‘modern’ pathways from miraa.
The gap between miraa farmers and traders is wide. Some farmers stay for years without setting foot on their farms after leasing them out to foreigners, who employ armed watchmen to keep them off.
In the long run, the landowners are together with their children turned into farm hands.
Majority of the farmers have consequently been impoverished as they engage in legal battles to reclaim their land parcels from the lessees.
The few farmers who opt to harvest their crop by themselves earn very little because the exploitative traders and brokers buy the twigs cheaply.
The merchants cunningly prefer leasing the farms to buying the produce directly.
The equivalent bundle of the Kangeta grade miraa, which farmers sell for Sh100, fetches more than Sh500 in London and Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.
Higher returns per unit create a situation where the exporters accumulate capital at a much higher rate.
Due to these inequalities, trade disputes are very common and many lawyers have opened offices in Maua town.
The town with a population of less than 50,000 people now hosts about 50 law firms.
Again, area residents have largely abandoned growing other crops as men spend most of their time in miraa business and women idle at home.
Renters of the farms do not allow integration of miraa with other crops.
Another fact that escapes majority Kenyans is that miraa production and consumption has always been controversial.
Colonial governments in Kenya and Somalia banned and un-banned the trade.
The business unrest continued even in the retired President Moi’s and now Kibaki’s administrations, with occasional closures of the Kenya-Somalia border, despite the fact that Somalia provides the largest market for the crop.
The occasional trade barriers have seen the miserable farmers bearing the burden because they are never paid for the spoilt produce.
Still, the Igembe’s prosperity is relative because things are less-than-rosy in the miraa district.
Domestic miraa marketing networks reached saturation point with the coming of the Somalis, constricting the main employment outlet, which was formerly absorbing the population of the majority unskilled youth.
Decreasing marginal returns to farm intensification, rising domestic costs and changing consumption levels, soaked up much of the excess income that among other things had fuelled a protracted Igembe drinking binge in the past two decades.
In 1944, records indicate, a Methodist missionary, the reverend John Laughton, singled out the Igembe from the other Meru sub-ethnic groups for their low alcohol consumption.
But by the 1990s, this situation had completely been reversed.
House heads accustomed to having cash in their pockets began experiencing shortfalls.
This has aggravated the leasing out of miraa farms where wholesalers rented miraa seasonally based on a specified number of the periodic harvests.
In exchange for advancing the needed cash to the crop owner, the renter receives a steady supply of miraa for considerably less than it would cost in the local market.
And the net decrease in a household’s income makes it difficult to pull out of such an arrangement.
However, the Somali exporters’ role is only one in a spectrum of factors contributing to the ongoing economic crunch in the miraa land.
For several decades the combination of on-farms self-sufficiency, off-farm employment and monthly infusions of cash money, has fuelled an economy based on ephemeral consumption. Few of the locals have seriously invested in real estates preferring to remain in the informal sector.
Over the past decade, bars, butcheries and canteens have mainly accounted for the trade licenses issued in these miraa zones.
Over time, the lure of easy income has undercut investment in education leaving outsiders to take over. The enticing miraa venture has seen many pupils drop out of school at primary level.
A fate similar to Nyamita’s befell an effort to form a miraa producer marketing co-operative society earlier in 1972, championed by then area MP, Mr Joseph Muturia.
The effort evaporated immediately after the first large stock of market bound miraa dried out at the society’s stores at Maua as some farmers ignorantly blocked its sale.
Miraa transactions are notable for the crude and insulting language used during negotiations.
This keeps off educated people from engaging in the business.
Once a former Igembe MP and cabinet minister, Mr Jackson Kalweo told this writer that he had shied away from the valuable venture owing to the vulgar language.
The situation in miraa producing areas does require correction, but the root problems are unlikely to vanish with the Somalis’ excuse.
Source: The Standard