Dominion Farms: Feeding Africa and Battling Critics

Businessman Calvin Burgess has invested $40 million over 10 years into turning a swamp in western Kenya into a model farm producing rice, fish and rotation crops.  The mission of Dominion Farms is to reduce poverty, transfer technology and advance sustainable capitalism in East Africa.

The Operation

At less than 0.1 acres of cropland per person, Kenya cannot feed its citizens without greater investment in commercial farming.  The goal of Dominion Farms is to produce a quarter of Kenya’s rice and at full production, it will significantly reduce the country’s dependence on imported food.

A unique feature of the farm is the degree of integration among product lines and their by-products.  In order to reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers, ammonia-rich water from the aquaculture operation will flow into rice paddies.  Settling ponds abundant in faecal matter will be dredged and the natural fertilizers spread on crops as organic manure.  Rice bran and soy meal will be used as protein sources in fish feed, and rice hulls will be burned to produce boiler heat for the feed mill and to dry grain following harvest.

The Critics

The greatest challenges however have not been in turning the swamp into productive agricultural land, but in countering the critics.  A poorly-researched Businessweek article suggested that the project was a land grab at the expense of local people.  Concerns have been raised about pesticide use and damage to the ecosystem.  Due to the high degree of mechanisation on the farm, “only” around 400 jobs have been created.

(Burgess has responded by saying that the swamp was barely used prior to his involvement, that the pest control is conducted by the Kenyan Government using Dominion Farms’ landing strip, and that the farm doesn’t use pesticides and only sprays nitrogen-based fertilizers and herbicides.)

Some Thoughts

Even if the criticisms have some legitimacy, there is much to admire in this story.

  1. With food prices rising once again, the goal of Dominion Farms to contribute to food security in Kenya is surely a worthy objective.  As a public comment by Otura Okoth on the Businessweek article noted, “Africa needs investment partners, not handouts from the developed world, and that is exactly what Dominion is doing.  In fact, food security should be the right way to go to enable the continent to feed itself.
  2. The critics are essentially complaining that Dominion Farms isn’t meeting the critics’ own agendas in social activism or environmentalism.  But while Dominion Farms does seek to operate in a sustainable manner and benefit the local community through health clinics and schools, it is a business and is operating true to its stated purposes.  Although Dominion Farms provides an easy target, those concerned about the destruction of wetlands should take their complaints to the government which was only too happy to lease the Yala Swamp and see it turned into productive farmland.  (And by the way, the area was originally barren land, but massive pollution caused by human settlement upstream saw the river slowly stagnate and develop into a huge swamp.)
  3. The benefits are greater than simply the farm operation.  A training school is teaching East Africans how to improve their farming skills and use their land more efficiently, so that they can feed themselves.  The fish feed plant and breeding programme is supplying 2 million fingerlings to tens of thousands of small holder fish farmers, while an estimated 6,000 local farmers may eventually be contracted to supply crops for the fish feed.

Business can be challenging in Africa, but after investing millions of dollars into Dominion Farms, Burgess deserves to make a profit.  And by doing so, he may inspire other smart business people to invest in the development of Africa.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. It is a sad day for humanity when big business can take advantage of rising food prices in vulnerable regions with weak governance to position itself favourably to conduct business by depriving local farmers of their inherited sustainable livelihoods. Destroying wetlands with impunity, defending the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and championing monocultures are at the heart of our unsustainable agricultural practices. When climate disruption begins to affect production and food security is genuinely at risk, how exactly will this farm provide access to food for local people? What is better, growing your own food in a sustainable manner, or having to pay exorbitant prices for food grown by those whose sole interest is profit?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Wessel. Do you live in Kenya? It’s always good to hear from someone who has on-the-ground experience of a situation.
      I think my article addressed most of the concerns that you raise. My understanding is that Dominion Farms has reclaimed a swamp that was unusable by the local farmers, and that it did not destroy a natural eco-system because the swamp had been created over the last 40 years due to unsustainable land-use practices by the locals.
      You make a good point about sustainability. I’m sure Dominion Farms could improve on that count. Their use of natural fertilizer derived from their fish-farm operation as a way of reducing chemical fertilizer use is surely a step in the right direction. I’m not concerned about whether they incorporate sustainable practices like this to save money or to save the planet, as long as they do it. I’m also not concerned about them making a profit. If they can help Kenya reduce its dependence on imports, at a price that is lower than the imported rice, surely that’s positive overall? Does anyone in Kenya want food prices to remain high so that small-holder farmers get a better return? If Kenya is dependent on imported food, then I don’t think keeping food prices artificially high is a good strategy.
      Food security is a big issue, and that seems to be one of Dominion Farms primary motives. They want Kenya to be self-sufficient so that the country isn’t held to ransom if climate disruption reduces global food production.
      Some good points to ponder!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: