Felix Koskei: The ephemeral monitor

Felix Koskei (left) with Governor Jackson Mandago (right) at a past event.

Felix Kiptarus Kosgei served in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Cabinet between April 2013 and March 2015 as the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. As he formed his first Cabinet in 2013, the President was faced with the unsettling fact that Kenya’s agriculture sector was slowly failing to sustain the nation’s food security.

Just a year before his exit, President Mwai Kibaki presided over the unveiling of the ISO 9001:2008 Certificate to the Ministry of Agriculture. He urged the ministry through then Minister, Dr. Sally Kosgey, to ensure quality management of systems at all levels to ensure that the country faced no hunger threats.

This was a tall order because consistent growth in the sector had remained elusive over the years. In fact, the sector had recorded negative growth at least twice between 2007 and 2011.

For a sector that was contributing nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employing nearly 80 per cent of the population directly and indirectly, Uhuru had to move quickly to salvage the country by appointing a person he deemed equal to the task of restoring the dignity of the sector.

Another key consideration at the time was devolution of agriculture as per the 2010 Constitution. The Constitution envisaged an all-region approach to bringing out the full agricultural potential of the country. In the new dispensation, the national government retained responsibility for agricultural policies while the county governments took over the implementation roles for crop and animal husbandry, plant and animal disease control, and livestock sale yards.

At the critical piloting stage of the country’s most dependable sector, the President was keen to find the perfect profile for the task. Definitely, he needed a strategic manager with a good understanding of policy formulation for a country at the brink of starvation.

On 25 May 2013, he nominated Koskei as the CS for Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock. Although a new face like most of Uhuru’s first-term CSs, Koskei was not new to public service.

Before his nomination, he had served in several public corporations, commissions and parastatals, including Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA). Uhuru’s diagnosis of the issues in the agriculture sector was lack of proper policy formulation and strategic implementation and no one, at least seemingly, fit the bill better than his nominee, Koskei.

Born in the vast agriculturally active county of Uasin Gishu, Koskei represented the plights of most Kenyan maize farmers from his own home county. At the time of his appointment, the maize farmers were lamenting the low market prices claiming that they were selling produce at throwaway prices. Koskei had an upper hand in understanding these issues, having worked closely with maize farmers in Uasin Gishu in his youth as an environmentalist. In appointing him to the Agriculture docket, the President was demonstrating to the farmers that it was time to have one of their own at the apex. Indeed, while introducing himself to the public, Koskei committed that he would embrace the challenges and provide answers to farmers and Kenyans at large.

But there was more to him than hailing from one of Kenya’s most agriculturally endowed regions. The President must also have considered Koskei’s unmatched record in Strategic Management, Public Procurement and Policy Expertise. With all its potential and its critical role in Kenya’s economy, the Ministry of Agriculture was yearning for a hands-on strategic manager. No doubt, someone with a taintless view of the impacts of policies on farmers and on food availability, access and cost, was the ideal candidate.

Koskei had had adequate training and a long career in Strategic Management and Public Procurement that demonstrated these qualities. His record spoke to Uhuru’s ideal profile for the task. A holder of Bachelor of Science and Master of Business Administration with specialty in Strategic Management from Nairobi University, Koskei was a founding member of Purchasing and Supply as a key function in Finance and Administration. Besides his academic qualifications, he also boasted of a plethora of career specific courses and trainings. He had a graduate diploma certificate in Purchasing and Supplies from the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS). He was trained in Enhancing Integrity in Procurement Training in Accra, Ghana.

Thanks to the experience he had gathered from his stints in several corporations and commissions, Koskei had earned himself admiration among his peers as a leader who always left a mark. At the Kenya Post and Telecommunication State Corporation, he played an instrumental role in preparing for the successful splinter of the Corporation and into Kenya Posta and Telkom Kenya Limited. He went ahead to streamline sound purchasing and supplies practices at Telkom Kenya Limited.

His stint at KeNHA also earned him accolades as a policy expert after he developing a Policy and Regulatory Framework for attaining the institution’s mandate, mission and vision. Koskei’s demonstrated knowledge in purchasing and procurement laws and strict adherence was undoubtedly necessary for a government that had an ambitious plan to reengineer agriculture in Kenya.

CS Kosgei got behind the wheel and while addressing his first function only a week after being sworn in, he put all staff at the ministry on notice, asserting that the task ahead would not spare “lazy officials”. He outlined the ministry’s vision to ensure that Kenya becomes a food secure nation in three years, emphasising that to achieve the vision, they had to prioritise farmers and their issues. “If you want to work with me, change of attitude will be very important. Our boss is the farmers and we have to put in all the structures to ensure that they produce enough produce for the country,” he said, speaking at the Agricultural Finance Corporation.

Koskei spoke convincingly about the real issues that needed to be streamlined. He touched on land policy that was rendering extensive farming almost impossible. With commendable awareness and a detailed scope, he raised concerns over diminishing value of land, citing his home county of Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia where maize fields were being subdivided into smaller portions. The CS outlined the government’s vision to ensure availability and access to farm inputs and finance. and to improve land tenure. He assured farmers and key stakeholders of the government’s full commitment to improve road networks and other vital agricultural infrastructure to reduce post-handling complexities that were costing the country 40 per cent losses.

As he took over the ministry in May 2013, Koskei had his job cut out. The Jubilee manifesto, crafted around the Kenya Vision 2030, spelled out the ambitious plan to increase efficiency in agricultural production through mechanisation and use of modern farming technology. The manifesto also sought to double and diversify the national strategic food reserves from 22 per cent in 2012 to 40 per cent. However, the most ambitious and strategic plan extracted from Kenya Vision 2030 was to put a million acres of land under modern irrigation and expand agricultural production within five years.

Among the priority projects in the Kenya Vision 2030 and which the President picked up almost immediately was the Galana Kulalu Food Security Project Model Farm. The KES 7.29 billion project in Tana River and Kilifi counties was considered a game-changer in enhancing large-scale food production, improving smallholder productivity and reducing the cost of food for all.

The existing statistics pointed to such a project. At the time, Kenya largely depended on rain-fed agriculture with less than half a million acres under irrigation. In fact, the country trailed behind its African peers with Nigeria, South Africa, Mali and Sudan practising more irrigation-fed agriculture. In the Maputo Declaration, African countries considered agriculture the solution to food shortage in the continent. Kenya, being a signatory, committed, among other things, to avail funds for massive agricultural projects. The requirement was for all countries to allocate 10% of their national budget to the sector each financial year. With Kenya’s population projected to increase by 30 per cent by 2030, the gap between food production and consumption was naturally expected to widen, rendering most of the population food insecure.

As a strategic remedy, the Galana Kulalu Project aimed to bring 1 million acres of land under irrigation. The plan was to put 500,000 acres under maize, reserve 200,000 acres for sugar-cane and use 150, 000 acres to raise beef and game. The remaining 50,000 acres was to be set aside for horticulture and dairy animals. To fully reduce the overdependence on rain-fed agriculture, the project included water storage through small dams for community use and large dams for State projects. The projection was to harvest surface run-off water to a cumulative volume of 125 million cubic metres by 2023. The project also aimed at fully utilising natural water sources, such as rivers Tana and Galana, to sustain the viable crop, livestock and fisheries enterprises.

The President instructed the National Treasury to prioritise the project and asked the CS treasury to avail funds to the concerned ministries. The hectic and often conflict-prone task of tendering and procurement for the project now demanded Koskei’s vast experience in this area.

After a rigorous process involving the National Irrigation Board and legal guidance from the Public Procurement and Disposal Act 2005 and Public Procurement and Disposal Regulations, the tender was eventually awarded to Green Arava. The Israeli company was tasked to: (1) construct two intakes from River Galana and instal pipelines linked to 24 irrigation systems serving 4,000 acres reserved for maize; (2) install a drip irrigation system for the remaining 6,000 acres; and (3) construct a logistics centre for housing a maize mill, drier, garage and a training facility within 30 months.

By January 2014, Kenya launched one of the largest agricultural projects in Africa. Coincidentally, the African Union and Year of Family Farming declared 2014 the Year of Agriculture by United Nations. In his speech during the commissioning of the first 10,000 acres of the project, the President was optimistic that Galana Kulalu would yield returns and grant Kenya the level of food security it deserved.

“With this programme, we aim to produce enough food crops, livestock and fish to feed our people while generating revenue and employment. We are here to address challenges of food security with associated high cost of living, rising food driven inflation, poverty and growing social and political instability,” Uhuru said He spoke passionately, adding that his government was committed to mechanise and modernise agriculture to boost the efficiency of the project.

But the project experienced friction from various factions. Most Kenyans were unaware it existed and many pessimists criticised the government for investing over KES 500 billion in a start-up venture. Local political and community leaders also vehemently opposed the project accusing the government of plotting to strangle the smallholder farming in the region.

Kosgei set out to popularise the project and win public support and confidence by assuring the country that it would solve the problems of the people. In an exclusive interview with The Star newspaper in April 2014, Kosgei explained how the multi-billion public–private partnership projects would be beneficial to both the local community and to the country. He added that the project would cater for the local pastoralist communities by providing corridors for watering their animals.

The project included an elaborate plan to construct water pans for the animals to support the fight against tsetse fly. Distribution of 50 Borana bulls to the local communities to boost their livestock farming was also part of the government’s plan for the local communities. For the smallholder farmers in Kilifi and Tana River counties, the government planned to donate greenhouses and dairy cows to youth and women.

In a bid to elaborate the intended impact of the project to Kenyans, Koskei gave an exclusive interview with Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru in January 2014 where he emphasised that the project would double the maize production in the country from 42 million bags to about 90 million. Two seasons of production every year, the soft-spoken CS assured Kenyans of significant reductions in food prices. The project was considered a potential employer to over two million Kenyans despite its highly mechanised model.

Away from the colossal task of overseeing the implementing the Galana Kulalu project to fruition, Koskei’s expertise in strategic management and procurement was still demanded in other sections of the ministry. Farmers from counties other than Kilifi and Tana River protested poor market prices and exploitation by tea marketing agencies. For example, small-scale tea farmers, through their lobby the Kenya Union of Small Scale Tea Owners (Kussto), complained that tea prices in 2014 should have been revised 6 years earlier. Yet here was no indication of improvement. The Tea Industry Status Report 2014 revealed that tea agencies, especially Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) was colluding with brokers to fix prices and deprive small-scale farmers.

The impasse revealed Koskei’s bold and assertive character. He moved swiftly to save small-scale tea farmers who he had promised to defend. In one stakeholder conference in Mombasa, Kosgei called out the bullish and defensive character of KTDA bosses, promising to fully implement the 2014 report. He demonstrated considerable connection with issues of small-scale tea farmers calling some KTDA offices “clubs” where bosses met to plan how to fleece farmers. “We have started to take action based on the report and more will come,” he told the conference assuring attendees that the ministry will be more accountable to farmers.

In 2015, the CS stepped in to resolve a standoff between maize farmers and the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). For weeks, farmers went on the rampage. Among the complaints was that NCPB had failed to set funds aside to purchase their produce. The farmers also boycotted the low prices which the Board was proposing to use in buying their produce. The farmers complained that they had been forced to go hungry despite their unwavering commitment to feed the country. The Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture summoned the CS to explain the circumstances under which a national board had failed to secure funds to stock the silo. He was categorical in his response, stating that matters were uniform for all the famers. He cited the cases of Kitale, Eldoret and Moi’s Bridge where the government silos were already full and that the government was working on relocation logistics. He also admitted that in other areas, NCPB had applied to the Treasury to fund further purchase. However, the standoff would reveal to the legislators some of the complexities of the devolved functions in the agriculture sector, a matter that the CS fluently highlighted.

Koskei demonstrated his commitment to securing the President’s food security enhancement legacy. Unfortunately, his tender and procurement-intensive docket undertook some irregular and questionable transactions that caught the attention of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. Taking responsibility for these anomalies, the CS stepped aside to pave to way for investigations. He was eventually acquitted in 2018. He restarted his active role in public policy, procurement and strategic management as a commissioner at the Judicial Service Commission.


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