Poulton, C. and Kanyinga, K. (2014) ‘The Politics of Revitalising Agriculture in Kenya’, Development Policy Review 32(S2): s151-s172.


In March 2004 the Kenyan government set out its Strategy for Revitalising Agriculture (SRA). Eight years later, almost no progress had been made. The SRA experience highlights both the potential and the limitations of competitive politics in promoting reform and the collective-action challenge that can confront reform of agriculture-sector institutions. The December 2002 election had created a window of opportunity for issue- and performance- based politics in Kenya. However, the new government coalition began to unravel soon after attaining power, and the return to ethnically-based patronage politics – illustrated here in relation to agriculture – undermined the SRA’s chances of success.

The article illustrates the recurring pattern of patronage politics in the Kenyan agriculture sector during the governments of President Kibaki. We also argue that high levels of poverty and inequality in rural Kenya are perpetuated through the resulting pattern of agricultural policy. Some, including Bates (1989), expressed the hope that democratisation would be able to lead to a greater focus on policy issues in national political competition and a chance for poor smallholder households to use their numerical advantage to demand more supportive policy and investment. However, the SRA experience illustrates both the potential and the limitations of competitive politics in promoting public-sector reform in agriculture. In Kenya the limitations stem from the fact that the ethno-regional basis of politics has so far survived the democratisation process largely unscathed, and demand from poor smallholder households for greater investment in agricultural public goods that would benefit them remains very weak.

The article draws on ongoing monitoring of, and participation in, the Kenyan agricultural and political scenes by the authors over the past decade, combined with key informant interviews conducted periodically during the years 2005-12.