The drive deep into the interior of Maara district in eastern Kenya is bumpy and uncomfortable, the long-winding cattle track that passes for a road straining the patience of both locals and visitors.
The journey on the local ruts is only possible in dry weather, and the villagers tend to gawk and wave at motor vehicles struggling down that way; so rare are they. Heaven help you should your vehicle break down.
Every so often, one chances on a lorry or van careening dangerously under the weight of produce being rushed to market. Therein lies the contradiction: the area is endowed with rich soil and good rain, making agriculture literally the only employer. Yet the roads leading to the area are non-existent, presenting a logistics nightmare in getting the regular bumper harvests to market.
Much of it goes bad, wasting months of toil and borrowed money (The UN estimates that $4 billion is annually lost to post-harvest losses in Africa).
Those with the means to carry produce are king here, and are mainly the rapacious middlemen. The result is that the poor farmer is fleeced dry, selling his crop at only a fraction of what is finally extorted out of city dwellers.
Innovations such as fancy mobile phone-based apps that allow farmers to identify favourable prices for their produce are non-existent here—the locals have simply never heard of them, or are too poor to use precious credit on them.
Their only lifeline then is the feared middleman. Clearly, the digital divide remains a chasm in this part of the country, despite global chatter as to the award-winning apps being churned out of Nairobi’s ‘Silicon Valley'.
The story is replicated in many rural areas in Africa, estimated to have 33 million small farms. Maara is located in fertile hinterland highlands that are rightly or wrongly believed to have benefited from skewed allocation of national resources. Yet even there, the roads disappear at the first sign of rain.
It is worse elsewhere, such as in western Kenya where a trip just a few kilometres into the interior reveals huge underdevelopment; the product of decades of politically-linked neglect. There, many peasant farmers are resigned to their fate. Agricultural extension officers, once so vital there, remain the stuff of folklore.
Investment in rural infrastructure in many African countries has remained woefully inadequate, leaving hundreds of millions at the mercy of greedy middlemen. Many governments are instead happy to put up huge Chinese-financed city megaprojects as a show of ‘development’, yet agriculture continues to employ most of the populace.
How much more beneficial would it be if governments sunk the borrowed billions into grading the critical feeder roads in the breadbasket regions, ensuring food is gotten to the hungry middle classes at a price fair to growers? Or put up more coolers to store milk? Or plan a simple rail track?
Leaving behind the Paul Collier-led small-farms-are-unproductive-argument, African countries need to get their priorities right. Millions more can be hauled out of poverty with targeted investment where it matters in the post-harvest and marketing chain.
Sometimes all that is needed to make a difference is just a single graded road.