Voices from rural towns of top farmer gunning for presidency
A great farmer — that is how people hanging around a shopping centre in Kosachei town in western Kenya describe Deputy President William Ruto, who is running for presidency in the August 9 election.
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 men work as labourers on the farm.
Tucked behind a black metal gate, the farm is guarded by police.
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.
Media reports say Ruto enjoys a cult-like following among his supporters. But the most recent nationwide opinion poll — which Ruto has dismissed as “manufactured” — show he is trailing Raila by 37 per cent to 43 per cent.
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 very high. He understands the issues of farmers,” says vegetable seller Mama Sasha.
Ruto’s farm is in Uasin Gishu county, which — along with neighbouring counties — produce most of Kenya’s maize. Its supply to the National Cereals and Produce Board has controversies over payments.
In 2018, a company registered under the names of Ruto’s wife and son was investigated over supply of maize worth millions of shillings, but the anti-graft agency cleared it. Ruto’s neighbours defend him, saying he was unfairly targeted.
They refuse to offer any criticism of him, blaming outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta — who is backing Raila after he fell out with his deputy early in their second term — for government failures. For them, Ruto is the source of their livelihood and “a win for him will be a win for all”.
“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 Ruto’s farm.
Her mud-walled stall is located metres away from 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.
A maize, dairy and sheep farmer, Edward Barngetuny, whose 40-acre farm is in 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 lack of guaranteed minimum returns. If the market is regulated then one is able to plan accordingly,” says the 33-year-old father of two.
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 Ruto’s home area had already abandoned the crop for sugarcane, whose price is regulated by the government.
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 Ruto hails, has a traditional delicacy called “mursik”. It is milk fermented in a 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. “We were affected by milk shortages and the rising cost of living. We hope things will change after the polls,” says the mother of five as she makes mursik.
The Kalenjin community produced Kenya’s longest-serving president, 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”, Kiswahili 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 Ruto, who has replaced the late Moi as the kingpin.
“We are hopeful that Ruto will take the presidency and reinstate our position in the country,” he tells the crowd.
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, from the Luo community, like Raila. He says that though Eldoret is a violence hotspot during polls, he has no plans to travel back to Kisumu as he doesn’t fear being targeted.
Eldoret also has a thriving second-hand clothes sector at West Market. Known as “mtumba”, they have featured in the manifestos of both leading candidates, each wanting to support the local textile sector and reduce imports.
Raila 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.
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 the other traders did not want to talk election politics, but agreed the market needed to be regulated to ensure that only clothes of a good quality were imported.
“We’ve become a dumping ground. Some of the clothes we receive are of a poor quality,” explains Violet Nyambokho, 50, who has sold skirts for 15 years.
Miles away in the rolling hills of Iten, which accommodates most of the country’s celebrated athletes, runners say a Ruto victory could benefit the sport.
Kamariny Stadium — which 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,” says coach Peter Bii.
“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 Ruto’s supporters have — but he will first need to show them he is a winner by racing to victory.