Something terrible has been happening at Yala Swamp, the 4,000-hectare super-rich land and important river water filtration system as our rivers enter Lake Victoria and it is time for Kenyans to address what is going on there.
Yala swamp is the biggest water catchment area for the rivers flowing into Lake Victoria. You destroy it then a lot of dirt and garbage enters the lake and pollutes it. It is a natural cleaning system for the water we use as humans.
So any development around there has to be carefully done to make sure the water system works. Don’t just give the place to somebody to grow whatever they want and make money.
This is what the Lake Basin Development Authority should be doing instead of building dead malls in Kisumu City and giving away half the fertile land in Nyanza to the Dominion company to make a mess.
This was a blunder and just plain robbery of land handed to a foreign company with the support of local politicians.
I am talking about 2,300 acres of absolute fertile and fragile land partly owned by the Kenyan state. We have the Yala Catchment area miles and miles before the river enters the lake. This is like a nature filtration system between rivers and big waters.
We are blessed to have them. In fact, the extinction of great fish species like Ningu and osoga, the white little fish, and even the big one, kamongo (oh my) are partly attributed to the demise of the water catchment areas entering lake Victoria. That is where they breed. And it has been messed up for decades even before Dominion.
Now that catchment area is a no man’s land and everybody is fighting for a piece of it. That is bad news for everybody.
Dominion is dead. Their projects are dead.
This 2,300 acres of land with unimaginable possibilities for development and groundbreaking successful investments in cereal produce, fruit produce, and processing, massive fish production and processing including inland fish farming, massive vegetable produce for local consumption and export and so many more is rotting in negligence.
How can we look at that and talk about development in Nyanza?
Let us correct the mistake of giving our most fertile land and fragile eco-system cog to a failed foreign investment.
After the collapse of the Dominion project the games have continued as this very important piece of property in Kenya is handed to other investors who basically don’t give a shit about the place but want to store in their pockets as assets to get loans for millions of other things.
Here are some of what has come out in public about the Yala Swamp land circus.
Kenya: Fresh dispute rocks planned Yala swamp takeover
The takeover of Yala swamp in Siaya County, which was announced recently, has run into fresh controversy after Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi issued new conditions to the new investor.
The takeover was announced through a Gazette notice that gave Lake Agro Limited absolute control of the vast land.
American firm Dominion Farms Limited, which had a 25-year lease to use the Yala swamp, officially handed over the lease to Lake Agro in a notice issued on January 13. 2020.
Rai billionaires snap up distressed Dominion Farms after vicious fight
The wealthy Rai family in 2020 bought the massive Dominion Farms in Siaya County’s Yala Swamp after its American owner lost a vicious political fight in the region.
The purchase adds to a string of firms that the Rai business empire has acquired and raises its clout further as one of the most dominant businesses in the western Kenya region.
But the sale ends a 17-year-old dream of the outspoken American investor Calvin Burgess, who wanted to turn the venture into Africa’s biggest rice farm.
The sale comes three years after Mr. Burgess claimed his multibillion-shilling investment was under siege from opposition party politicians sanctioned by ODM leader Raila Odinga. Mr. Odinga denied the allegations through his handlers numerous times.
Mr Burgess flew to Kenya in September 2002 with the ambition of putting up the single largest rice farm on the continent. But after years of working his dreams in the Nyanza region, he came out one morning seeking the protection of Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet and Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho, asking them to deploy security officers to the farm to protect him from “hired goons”.
He also sensationally accused some members of the Odinga family of pressing the firm to become a dealer in a prime location in Kisumu, and after he gave in, his alleged tormentors took the rice and had not paid for it five years later. All these claims were dismissed by the Odingas and politicians in the region.
But it marked a turning point for the firm and was the beginning of the end of what was billed as Nyanza’s biggest agricultural investment. From here, it went downhill.
A gazette notice dated January 13 says that Dominion Farms Ltd will transfer its business at its premises known as Dominion Farms, located on a 3,700-hectare tract in the Yala Swamp in Siaya County, subject to some unspecified conditions, to Lake Agro Ltd, and the transferee will carry on the business at the same premises.
A search at the company registry revealed that Lake Agro is owned by three members of the Rai family empire — Jaswant Singh Rai, Tejveer Singh Rai, and Onkar Singh Rai — who each own one share in the company.
The three are also directors of Lake Agro, now the new owner of Dominion Farms, whose registered physical address is at Apollo Centre on Ring Road in Nairobi.
The Rais did not respond to our email questions on what exactly they plan to grow on the farm after its acquisition, how much they plan to invest in this new venture and how much they bought the venture for, as well as how they will handle the debts owed by the company, especially to employees.
But the Gazette notice indicated that the Rais will only inherit the good part of the business and leave the American investor to foot all the debts.
“All debts or liabilities due and owing by the Transferor in respect of up to the date of transfer as set out above shall be received and paid by the Transferor. The Transferee is not assuming nor will it intend to assume any liabilities whatsoever incurred by the Transferor in the business up to the date of transfer,” the notice reads in part.
The other trouble for the firm came in 2018 when Yala Swamp residents took it to the National Land Commission for taking more land than it initially should have taken. NLC allowed their petition and asked the Ministry of Lands and the Siaya County government to resurvey the swamp to determine the acreage under Dominion Farms.
“The Commission further recommends that if there is excess land, it should be restored to the affected communities and ownership documents prepared for the community,” NLC ruled.
The company also fell out with the community, which accused it of destroying the environment and not honoring its promises of building schools and hospitals as part of its corporate social responsibility plan.
When the firm made the application to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) in 2015 to be allowed to use the swamp, Dominion Farms had initially proposed to establish a sugarcane plantation and put up a processing mill on 5,000 acres in the flood plain of the River Yala Siaya and Bondo sub-counties.
The plantation was to depend entirely on rain as a source of water and no irrigation was required. Community members were to be allowed to cultivate sugarcane on their own farms and sell them to Dominion. The proposed sugarcane processing mill was to have a sugarcane receiving section or yard and processing, packaging, storage, and power-generation sections.
It is not yet clear if the Rais will be looking at reviving this dream given their interests in the sugar industry.
Dominion is now the latest acquisition by the Rai group, whose business fortunes have blossomed in the past decade. The Rais have also become acquirers of firms in distress, having acquired Webuye Pan Paper Mills for just Sh900 million and renamed it Rai Paper.
In September last year, people living around the swamp embarked on a fresh bid to have the area registered as community land.
The locals argued that the move was to wade off cartels who are positioning themselves to benefit from the ongoing surveying of the swamp land as ordered by the National Land Commission (NLC).
The drive followed a directive in April 2019 by NLC, which ordered a fresh survey of the swamp by the county government of Siaya.
It followed a successful petition by the locals in 2018 to the land commission to have them included in the ownership of the land.
In a Gazette Notice on March 1, 2019, NLC approved their complaints and recommended that the Ministry of Land and the county government of Siaya should re-survey the swamp and determine the acreage occupied by the American investor. And don’t forget the beautiful Yala Town.
Adongo Ogony is a Human Rights Activist and a Writer who lives in Toronto, Canada