A few years ago, Charles Kirimi lived comfortably in central Kenya, with his own house and car. These days, he sleeps on the streets and scrapes by on coins from bus drivers who pay him to bring them passengers.
Kirimi is one of a growing number of people locals refer to as “poor millionaires”. They have cashed in on a property boom, but spent the money quickly and were left with nothing.
Kirimi sold the one-acre plot that he inherited in Ndagani village for 3 million Kenyan shillings (about $30,000) in 2014, and moved his family into Tharaka Nithi county’s main town of Chuka.
“My family had status in society when I got the money,” he recalled. “We rented a two-bedroom house in Chuka town, and opened a fruits and vegetables business for my wife with part of the money.”
Most of the cash soon disappeared, however, and Kirimi isn’t sure where it all went. But the windfall did attract friends who would drink with him and chew khat, a leaf that contains a mild stimulant and is popular throughout East Africa.
“They only came into my life to have free khat and beer with my money,” said Kirimi, adding that his wife and children left him to live with her parents.
The rush for property has been driven in part by the establishment of Chuka University in 2004, which created demand for staff and student housing, according to Godfrey Murithi, a member of the county assembly.
Hotels and entertainment spots soon followed, he said.
That has been the pattern throughout much of central Kenya, as the government expanded the post-secondary education system, said Robert Mudida, an economist at the Strathmore Business School in Nairobi, the capital.
But the boom has also been driven by members of Kenya’s growing middle class who cannot afford property in the capital, he added.
“That is why this group of Kenyans is preferring to buy land and invest in rural areas where it is cheaper,” he said.
As the boom picked up, developers began convincing rural farmers to sell – often below market prices – said Kunga Ngece, who founded the Centre for Research in Environment Kenya, which works with community groups on social enterprises.
“At first the offer looks attractive for a family that has known poverty all its life,” said Ngece.
“But they soon begin to realise money goes as fast as it came, and cannot be compared to growing crops, which can at least keep them fed all year round.”
Cheap sales are often driven by desperation, as people need quick cash to pay for emergencies like medical bills, according to Peter Murungi, a surveyor from Chuka who has facilitated more than a dozen land transfers.
In response, some counties are working with the central government’s National Land Commission (NLC) to implement new land transfer systems that are more transparent and aim to protect illiterate farmers from being taken advantage of.
The Kajiado county government banned companies from facilitating land sales and set up an authority to oversee transactions, said Jackson Matanta, who previously worked as the county’s environment officer.
In Kiambu and other counties, local governments have organised public meetings to educate residents about land transactions and market prices, according to Liz Wanjiru, a pastor who has taken part in such meetings.
Other initiatives educate rural households on investing proceeds from property sales into small businesses, explained Muhammad Swazuri, the NLC chair.
The NLC is also putting pressure on county governments to offer incentives not to sell, such as installing irrigation systems, he said.
“Land is the most prized asset for majority of Kenyans who rely on agriculture,” Swazuri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “When you take it away from them, you take away their livelihoods.”
Hunger and Violence
The property boom is swallowing up farmland as well as pastures, which has exacerbated sometimes violent tensions between herders and private landowners, said Matanta, the former environment officer for Kajiado county.
“We had to stop the uncontrolled sale of land in Kajiado county, because it left pastoralists with no grazing land,” he said.
The local government cracked down on the practice of subdividing and selling in order to preserve communally-held land where herders could bring their animals to graze, instead of encroaching on private property, he said.
About half a dozen of Kenya’s 47 counties are developing policies aimed at determining the limits of urban development, minimising encroachment into agricultural areas, and providing land tenure security, said Matanta.
More are likely to follow suit, given the rising concerns over landlessness due to unregulated sales among the poor, according to Ibrahim Mwathane, chairman of the Land Development and Governance Institute, a think tank in Nairobi.
He added that the land rush has left some Kenyans hungry.
“Property development in rural areas is leading to food insecurity, because land meant for agriculture production is being converted into buildings and sewerage,” said Mwathane.
But many Kenyans are resisting the temptation to sell their land for a quick profit, including Ngai Kathuni who inherited two acres in Tharaka Nithi county last month.
The 35-year-old is growing kale, tomatoes and cabbage on one section of his land, and said he plans to pour some of the profits back into his farm and expand the area under cultivation over the next few years.
“When I grow fruits and vegetables I can earn income by selling them, and also get some greens to feed my family,” he said. “If I sell my land I will lose my family identity and heritage.”
This article was written by Kagondu Njagi and edited by Jared Ferrie for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.