The Agrarian Question in Kenya

Stephen Orvis

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"Tackles central questions in the literature on African agrarian social structure and rural development. . . . Remarkably broad in scope, rich in conceptual and theoretical content, and it speaks directly to development policy. Few volumes attempt so much and fewer yet do it as well."--Frank W. Holmquist, Hampshire College, Amherst

"Provides new insights into debates about agricultural development in Africa through combining a historical and comparative perspective with a detailed case study. Reveals the relationship between inequality and agricultural productivity to be much more complex than the current wisdom assumes. . . . A compelling picture."--Victoria Bernal, University of California, Irvine

Kenya has been a model of market-based development for many years, widely touted because of early and significant economic successes. Recent slowing in the growth of agriculture, however, has meant slower growth overall. Stephen Orvis argues that a shortage of labor at the household level—especially women’s labor—explains this stagnation.
In this important study, Orvis critiques "structural adjustment" and delineates the ways in which market forces have been largely responsible for Kenya’s gradual shift toward a less agrarian society. He also explores the ways in which market forces have spawned the development of social and political networks that have little interest in improving agricultural growth, and he provides the first detailed account of rural participation in the multiparty electoral process.
Drawing on intensive field work in Kisii District, a densely populated area in the tea and coffee zones of western Kenya, he documents the evolution of more than 100 families over three generations and the last 50 years, plumbing their current and historical economic strategies. He uses the insights generated by this micro-analytic exercise to reinterpret a number of other peasant studies done in Kenya and elsewhere. As a result he is able to draw convincing implications from his work for a surprisingly large range of issues central to our understanding of Kenyan sociology, rural development, and politics, of interest to Kenya and development scholars alike.

Stephen Orvis is associate professor of government at Hamilton College.

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