The introduction of tea plucking machines by multinational tea companies, leading to over 20,000 workers being declared redundant, is a major issue in the Kericho gubernatorial campaigns.
It is a factor that is believed to have largely contributed to the downfall of former Cabinet Secretary for Devolution Charles Keter in the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party primaries, with claims that he owns most of the machines.
The former CS defended himself against the claims, but his opponents kept harping on them, swaying public opinion in the process. The claims are still being exploited by the politicians on the campaign trail ahead of the August elections.
Mr Keter, who is a former Belgut MP and the first Kericho Senator, was handed a shocking defeat by political greenhorn Erick Mutai, an Embu University lecturer who has teamed up with Mr Fred Kirui, the former MP’s rival.
Mr Kirui, who was making a second stab at governorship, gave up his ambitions and agreed to be Dr Mutai’s running mate in what further tilted the scales against Mr Keter. Despite insisting that he would beat his two rivals hands down, the former CS was handed a humiliating defeat and perhaps a political career wrecker.
Dr Mutai has repeatedly stated publicly that his administration will engage multinationals and trade unions with a view to scaling down on tea-picking machines in order to create employment opportunities for residents.
After winning the UDA ticket, Dr Mutai and Mr Kirui have to face independent candidate Samuel Rotich, a former Kipkelion MP, in the race to succeed Governor Paul Chepkwony, who is serving his second and final term.
Mr Rotich has partnered Elijah Kirui Maru, who had earlier declared interest in the top seat, but agreed to be a running mate.
The former assistant minister in the Kanu regime said that, as a seasoned politician, he had the leadership qualities and ability to put in place programmes that would spur development and economic growth in the agriculturally endowed county.
“There is an urgent need to upgrade infrastructure facilities, especially roads in rural areas, to ease transportation of goods to the market. The standards of construction of the facilities have to be raised and ensure that [they are] maintained all the year round,” Mr Rotich said.
Paradigm shift in agriculture
If elected, Mr Rotich said, he would ensure that there is a paradigm shift in the agriculture sector and for value addition in the dairy sector to be adopted in order to enable farmers earn more from their investments.
“Despite being a high milk-producing county, blessed with vast and highly agriculturally productive land, we don’t have a milk processing plant,” Mr Rotich said, adding, the county should assist cooperative societies to establish one.
He is also planning to employ more agricultural extension officers to assist farmers to upgrade their farming techniques in order to maximise the productivity of their small portions of land.
In an earlier interview, Mr Maru said that, there was a need for taxpayer’s money to be put to good use, with public participation processes being entrenched, suspected areas of pilferage sealed, and tendering system made competitive, open and transparent.
Dr Mutai said it was unfortunate that, though the region had huge potential for value addition in agriculture, the leadership had failed to put in place policies and programmes that would attract the growth of cottage industries.
He said that there is need to build a sugar factory to cater for cane farmers in the lower zone, and lobby for electricity subsidies for millers in the cosmopolitan county.
“We need to prop up cooperative societies in the dairy, sugar, coffee and horticultural sectors in order to encourage setting up of cottage industries that would create employment opportunities and boost economic growth in the region,” the don added.
“We should zone the six constituencies for light and heavy industries, and agro-processing plants so as to create employment opportunities, a ready market for farm produce and raise incomes for residents,” Dr Mutai said.
Though members of the Kipsigis community are the majority, the county is cosmopolitan, with large populations of Luhya, Kikuyu, Kisii, Luo and Asian communities.
According to the 2019 census, Kericho has a population of 901,776, with 375,668 voters registered in the 2017 elections.
Although the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) projected the number of registered voters to be have risen to 516,780, the updated countrywide was yet to be released.
But the latest register in the commission’s records indicates there are 377,211 voters in the six constituencies.
Bureti leads with 82,796 voters, followed by Ainamoi (76,346), Belgut (67,738), Kipkelion East (56,630), Sigowet/Soin (47,119) and Kipkelion West (46,502).
Dr Mutai garnered 126,038 votes in the UDA primaries against Mr Keter’s 60,342 votes.
Deputy President William Ruto—the UDA party leader and presidential flagbearer—has, however, given a political lifeline to Mr Keter by co-opting him into the presidential campaign team in the Rift Valley.
But the former CS was conspicuously missing at a UDA prayer rally for all the party’s nominees in the county held at Kericho Moi Gardens on May 22.
“It will take a long time for Mr Keter to reinvent himself. It appears the people have moved away from his brand of politics and embraced servant leadership as opposed to the high-handedness he was associated with, and the overbearing nature of his aides,” Mr Ben Siele, a Kipkelion East based politician, says.
The support Dr Mutai received in the UDA nomination, Mr Siele says, was impressive and would only be raised in the General Election as there was voter apathy in the primaries.
Water, garbage collection
Lack of water in Kericho town and outlying trading centres, coupled with lack of capacity for garbage collection, remain some of the major challenges facing the county and which the next administration needs to tackle.
Kericho and Bomet counties are engaged in an on-and-off tussle over the supply of water to Kapkatet and Litein trading centres in Bureti constituency that has remained unresolved for nine years, leading to frequent disconnection.
An outstanding bill of over Sh29 million is yet to be settled by Kericho Water and Sanitation Company to Bomet Water and Sanitation Company, which operates the Itare project in Konoin constituency. Before devolution, the project was operated by the defunct Litein County Council (then in Kericho).
Prof Chepkwony’s administration has set the agenda in value addition by facilitating the Kipkelion District Cooperative Union, with 9,852 smallholder farmers from 67 societies, to process and export coffee to South Korea.
The first consignment of 134.4 tonnes was recently sold, earning farmers Sh105.1 million.
Putting into operation the Roret pineapple processing plant, which has stalled for 15 years despite the national and county governments sinking millions of shillings into the project, will also be a key campaign issue.
Upgrading of health facilities, staffing them and ensuring medicine is available to patients are other issues the next governor will need to address alongside infrastructure and education challenges facing the region.