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Kenya Real Estate Boom Threatens Prime Farmland

  • Mary Alice Salinas

A real estate boom in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is pushing development toward prime farmland outside the city, raising concerns about food and economy security. The housing demand is being fueled by a growing middle-class that is flocking to urban centers. It is a trend taking place throughout Africa and is expected to continue for years to come.

There is a booming housing market from Ghana to Nigeria to Kenya. More and more Africans are moving to major cities like Nairobi to earn a living, and they are looking for housing.

They are the driving force behind new developments like Bahati Ridge, which is about 45 kilometers outside Nairobi. Dozens of homes there have been built right up against lush farmland.

Real estate vs. farming

Nairobi is surrounded by thousands of fertile acres just like it. But developers, like Bahati Ridge chairman Joseph Gilbert Kibe, say it makes far more business sense to build homes on this land.

“Agricultural land is cheaper than residential land,” Kibe said.

He argued that real estate development is far more lucrative than farming. Kibe said that is why he uprooted half of his 180-acre coffee farm to build the housing development.

Coffee bushes are grown on some of Kenya’s most fertile lands, and their beans are sold to high-end coffee stores around the world.

Growing urban sprawl

Agricultural economist Kenney Gitonga said 10,000 acres of the crop have been uprooted for real estate over the past five years. He argued that urban expansion is threatening the country’s agricultural sector, a key source of exports and foreign exchange.

“We move to a situation where a lot of land is being converted into real estate. What we are seeing, we are denying [the] agricultural sector some very productive resources,'' said Gitonga.

Also alarming, said Gitonga, is the potential impact of urban sprawl on food security.

"Kenya is a food insecure country at the moment. That is to say, we are unable to serve our people, a majority of our people are not able to access basic food stuffs on a continuous basis," said Gitonga. "So when it comes to food security, we have to distinguish two aspects that actually you can produce your food. Alternatively, you can also access that food from the market.''

Food security

The African Development Bank says there are 300 million middle-class Africans. The bank defines middle class, though, as anyone spending from $2 to $20 a day.

The World Bank, headquartered in Washington, D.C., sees urbanization as a key driver for domestic growth, and a key reason it has a positive long-term outlook for Africa. It says Africa’s growth will continue to affect social and demographic dynamics on the continent.

The World Bank also says 40 percent of Africa’s one billion people currently live in cities. That figure is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2030, adding to the pressure to find new sources of land for settlement.

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