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