Why free land markets are good for economies

We are living in interesting times. It’s only a few years since we enacted key legislation to guide the holding and dealings in our private, public and community land as required under the 2010 Constitution. But we have been lately treated to some public narrative that provokes thought.

This includes demands that landowners who purchase land outside their indigenous zones should not seek elective positions. Moreover, they must confine the use of their land to only what is acceptable to local residents.

This has rattled some people in these areas, while others have seized it to score political points. Having participated in numerous forums where experts exercise discretion to navigate intellectually, at times going absolutely extremist, this was unsurprising.

Land means different things to different people. Some see an economic commodity, to be sold or exchanged for value, the beneficiary notwithstanding. Others see a social-cultural good around which to mobilize the identity and existence of communities.

Yet others see land as a political tool through which to leverage their vote baskets. Many others care less for any of these. They care less about the identity or place of origin of the owners, provided that they can obtain accommodation or run businesses on the developments thereon.

Currently, our constitution gives any person the right to acquire and own property of any description or interest anywhere in the republic. And the use of such land can only be regulated in the interest of matters such as defence, public order or public safety.

Public health, public morality and land use planning are also grounds for land use regulation. Nothing else! Under our laws, one popular and rather liberal way of acquiring title to land is free market purchase. This is the avenue through which many Kenyans have acquired and owned land outside their areas of origin.

Under our constitution and the laws, land rights so acquired are legitimate and protected. Kenya’s land market is free! Worldwide, free land markets have been liberally used to redistribute land, with those willing to exchange it for cash freely offering it in the market for purchase by those needy and willing.

And much as it has its downside, this practice will only scale up as more countries embrace free market dynamics. In places where such markets have been well exploited, they have driven great changes in demographics, politics, land use patterns and economies.

New land owners will usually move in with new demands and lifestyles. They multiply with time. They seek to have their voices heard so as to ensure that their lifestyles and preferences are accommodated in policy planning and implementation.

Therefore, they gradually seek participation in local and national politics. Invariably, they will seek social and commercial services, hence starting off new market centres, or expanding existing ones.

This creates further demands for land and influences land size and land use changes.

Consequently, this most natural growth expands the economies of the affected areas.

Here in Kenya, Nairobi, Kiambu, Machakos, Kajiado and Narok have suffered a major brunt from free land market forces. The demographics and land use in these counties today is a far cry from that in the seventies and eighties. The heavy settlement by land purchasers from outside these counties changed both land use and politics. It has been such a gradual, free and natural progression that no one ever stopped to think about it. This is so for Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu, Laikipia and Isiolo too.

Current and incoming political leaders in these highly cosmopolitan counties will have to beware this continuing and irreversible reality. And perhaps if we did some targeted assessment, the free land market driven changes in these areas have been responsible for the overall improvement in their infrastructural, social and commercial services, hence improved livelihoods.

The writer is chair, Land Development and Governance Institute.

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