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Kenya elections: Why farmers like William Ruto’s big ambitions

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A great farmer – that is how people hanging around outside a small shopping centre in Kosachei town in western Kenya describe Deputy President William Ruto, who is running for the presidency in the 9 August election.

Mr Ruto is one of Kenya’s biggest maize farmers. His expansive farm, which is next to the shopping centre, is evidence of his fortune.

Women buy vegetables, bananas and eggs from the farm and sell them in markets in nearby towns, while the men work as casual labourers on the farm.

Tucked away behind a black metal gate, it is heavily guarded by police.

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Mr Ruto owns vast pieces of land across the country and concerns have been raised about how he acquired some of them.

In June 2013, the High Court ordered him to surrender a 100-acre (40-hectare) farm, and compensate a farmer who had accused him of grabbing the land during the 2007 post-election violence. He denied any wrongdoing.

In that election he had backed the presidential bid of Raila Odinga, who is now his main challenger – reflecting the constantly shifting political alliances in Kenya as leaders calculate how best to secure power.

Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper says Mr Ruto enjoys a cult-like following among his supporters. But the most recent nationwide opinion poll – which Mr Ruto has dismissed as “manufactured” – show he is trailing Mr Odinga by 37% to 43%.

Kosachei residents are hopeful that he will win, and help farmers increase their yields and make Kenya self-sufficient in food.

“He is a good neighbour who teaches us how to farm. Back when he was the minister for agriculture he subsidised fertiliser. The price of fertiliser at the moment is at its highest ever. He is the only one who understands the issues of farmers,” says vegetable seller Mama Sasha.

Mama Sasha and her friends showcase cabbages outside her stall in Kosachei

Mr Ruto’s farm is in Uasin Gishu county, which – along with neighbouring counties – produce most of Kenya’s maize.

Its supply to the national cereal board has had controversies over payments.

In 2018, a company registered under the names of Mr Ruto’s wife and son was investigated over the supply of maize worth millions of Kenyan shillings, but the anti-corruption agency cleared it.

Mr Ruto’s neighbours in Kosachei defend him, saying he was unfairly targeted.

They refuse to offer any criticism of him, blaming outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta – who is backing Mr Odinga after he fell out with his deputy early in their second term – for government failures.

For them, Mr Ruto is the source of their livelihood and “a win for him will be a win for everyone”.

“If a ‘mama mboga’ [vegetable vendor] doesn’t have starting capital, they go and get produce from his farm to start their business,” Mama Sasha tells us while showing off some cabbages and traditional vegetables from Mr Ruto’s farm.

Her mud-walled stall is located metres away from Mr Ruto’s farm.

He has promised cheaper loans to farmers to help them meet the costs of production and provide ready markets for their produce.

Edward Barngetuny at his mazie farm

A maize, dairy and sheep farmer, Edward Barngetuny, whose 40-acre farm is in the Salient area of neighbouring Nandi County, says the increased cost of fertiliser has made farmers reduce the acreage they farm.

“The biggest issue we are facing is the lack of guaranteed minimum returns. If the market is regulated then one is able to do the math and plan accordingly,” the 33-year-old father of two says.

The price of maize is regulated by demand and supply forces making it unpredictable.

Currently, a bag of maize is selling at the highest price ever but some farmers in Mr Ruto’s home area had already abandoned the crop for sugarcane whose price is regulated by the government.

“We’d like him [Ruto] to remove all taxes on farm implements. Implements have become very expensive yet we want to mechanise to increase yield,” Mr Barngetuny says.

He dismisses the recently announced subsidy on maize flour – which is to last for the next month – as an election gimmick, saying it will not affect most growers as the next harvest is not until December.

“It’s just to entice Kenyans to vote in the upcoming elections,” he says.

Dairy farming is also huge in western Kenya and the Kalenjin community from which Mr Ruto hails has a traditional delicacy called “mursik”.

It is milk fermented in a traditional gourd lined with soot from branches of specific trees for preservation and flavour.

Nelly Kulei has been in the mursik business for more than 20 years and says this year has been tough.

Nelly Kulei demonstrates how Mursik is made

“We were affected by milk shortages and the rising cost of living. We are hopeful that things will change after this election,” says the mother of five as she demonstrates how mursik is made.

The Kalenjin community produced Kenya’s longest-serving president, the late Daniel arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years.

In Eldoret town, a group of residents regularly meet to discuss politics in what is called “Bunge la Mwananchi”, Swahili for People’s Parliament.

A former aspiring MP Dan Langat speaks to them about the need for the Kalenjin community to give its full backing to Mr Ruto, who has replaced the late Mr Moi as the community’s kingpin.

“We are hopeful that Mr Ruto will take the presidency and reinstate our position in the country,” he tells the crowd.

Dan Langat talks to a group of locals in Eldoret town

Eldoret has grown to become Kenya’s fourth largest town. It boasts a new skyscraper, built on its hilly terrain.

The town buzzes with traders mostly selling agricultural produce.

But it is also home to major textile firms that provide employment to thousands.

One of them, Zaritex, is owned by Daniel Odhiambo, who comes from the Luo community, like Mr Odinga.

He says while Eldoret is a violence hotspot during elections, he has no plans to travel back home to Kisumu as he does not fear being targeted because of his ethnic background.

He says about 50% of his employees are locals from the Kalenjin community and they have coexisted well.

“The security agencies here have really tried to preach peace and we are hopeful that it will be peaceful,” Mr Odhiambo says as he shows an employee how to measure a fabric.

Eldoret also has a thriving second-hand clothes sector at West Market.

Known as “mtumba”, second-hand clothes have featured in the manifestos of both leading candidates, each wanting to support the local textile industry and reduce reliance on imported clothes.

Mr Odinga caused controversy by stating that second-hand clothes were previously owned by dead people in Europe, but he later clarified that he would support traders who sold them even as he sought to grow the local textile industry.

Violet Nyambokho

BBC
We’ve become a dumping ground. Some of the clothes we receive are of a poor quality”
Violet Nyambokho
Second-hand clothes vendor

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Tabitha Mumbi, 40, says the sector offers a livelihood to millions of Kenyans.

“I’m a product of mtumba, my parents educated me until diploma level with this business and now I’m paying my children’s school fees with this money,” she says.

She and other the traders did not want to talk election politics, but agreed the market needed to be regulated to ensure that only second-hand clothes of a good quality were imported.

“We’ve become a dumping ground. Some of the clothes we receive are of a poor quality and it has now become difficult to make any profits,” explains 50-year-old Violet Nyambokho, who has sold skirts for 15 years.

Miles away in the rolling hills of Iten, known as the home of champions for accommodating most of the country’s celebrated athletes, runners are hopeful that a Ruto victory would benefit the sport.

Iten

Kamariny stadium – which Mr Ruto promised in 2017 would be completed in six months – is still under renovation.

“There is lack of support for athletes who want to compete in track events. That is why we are seeing a preference for road races. There are no facilities for athletes to train in track events,” coach Peter Bii says, blaming contractors for the delay in completing work on the stadium.

He says most athletes who come to Iten to train because of the terrain end up getting frustrated because of lack of support – and they want better organisation.

“Mr Ruto will need to disband Athletics Kenya as its current composition is full of retirees who lack creativity,” he says.

The coach’s comments underline the high expectations that Mr Ruto’s supporters have – but he will first need to show them he is a winner by racing to victory.

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