Willy Bett: The ultimate sector insider

Willy Bett with president Uhuru Kenyatta when he presided over the Nyeri ASK in 2017.

Willy Kipkorir Bett’s academic qualifications, professional preparation, and work experience made him one of the best picks to oversee agriculture, the backbone of Kenya’s economy.

Agriculture was a key pillar of the Jubilee administration’s Third Medium Term Plan, and the administration had come up with the Big Four Action Plan, often referred to as the Big Four Agenda, to accelerate delivery of projects and programmes in the sector under the pillar of Food Security and Nutrition.

The other three pillars are Affordable Housing, Universal Health Coverage, and Enhancing Manufacturing, the latter mostly depending on the success of agriculture.

And while the ministry had started on a reformist path, with ambitious projects such as the one-million-acre Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme being launched, graft allegations soon marred some of them. In 2015, 170 senior government officials suspected of corruption were asked to step aside. Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Cabinet Secretary Felix Koskei was one of them.

Koskei, who had been mentioned in relation to alleged illegal allocation of sugar import permits and cultivation of a 100-acre piece of government land, would later be cleared by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission ( EACC) for lack of evidence.

This is the gap that Willy Bett was tapped to fill, arriving at Kilimo House, the Ministry of Agriculture’s headquarters, straight from the Kenya Seed Company, where he had been Chief Executive Officer between 2009 and 2015.
He had also been a member of the boards of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (KALRO), and the Seed Trade Association of Kenya (STAK), three institutions that are instrumental in the development of the agricultural sector.

The holder of a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in marketing, Bett comes from Nandi County, one of Kenya’s most important breadbaskets.

All these credentials gave Bett an enviable insider knowledge of the workings of agriculture in the country.
At the helm of the Kenya Seed Company, Bett notes on his LinkedIn page, the company’s “financial performance grew significantly… from a turnover of Ksh2.9 billion in 2011 to Ksh5 billion in 2015. Profits grew from Ksh50 million in 2011 to Ksh434 million in 2015.”

It was also under his stewardship that Kenya Seed adopted mobile technology to protect its products and customers from counterfeiters. The text message-based system allowed its products to be authenticated via a label on the seed bags with a scratch-off panel that revealed a unique code. When the code was texted to a toll-free number, the reply would indicate the genuineness or otherwise of the product.

Thus, his appointment to the Cabinet in 2015 was greeted with ringing endorsement. The Daily Nation reported that sugarcane farmers in western Kenya were thrilled and were looking up to the new CS to turn around the dwindling fortunes of the sugar industry.

And in the early months after taking over the docket, he did not disappoint. One of the crops he promoted enthusiastically was cotton. In his tours across the country, he noted that the government was keen on reviving the industry, which was, until the late 1980s, a major foreign exchange earner for Kenya.

Research by the ministry had revealed strong local demand for lint and was convinced that investment in value-addition would place Kenya in a strong position to export clothing and textiles to the US under the preferential African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). During the promotion, farmers were also to get training and access to credit facilities.

It was also during Bett’s time at the ministry that the Kenya Horticultural Council (KHC) was launched in July 2017 to help the industry comply with domestic and international quality standards and other market access requirements. These include horticulture standards for flowers and ornamentals.

The minister also tried to expand the bounds of Kenya’s farming, as traditionally known, declaring in 2016 that the Ksh300 million Goldox Donkey Abattoir in Chemongech, Baringo County, owned by two Chinese nationals, Lu Jing and Lu Donglin, an export slaughterhouse of donkey and horse meat, was allowed in Kenya following the amendment of the Meat Control Act in 2012 that classified the two as food animals.

The slaughter of donkeys was, however, later banned, with the government citing increased theft of the animal for sale to licensed slaughterhouses.

Bett also promoted fish farming. In July 2017, the government disbursed Ksh46 million for the upgrading of two fish landing beaches on Lake Victoria and the promotion of fish cage farming. While this was itself a creative way of enhancing the lake’s fish business, traditional fishermen and environmentalists were not amused and called for a more sustainable way of exploiting fish resources in the lake.

No wonder that in 2022, the government olled out the Sustainable Activities in Water Areas (SAWA) project on Lake Victoria to promote fish cage farming and develop regulations for cage installation to protect breeding grounds and navigation routes. This, the government figured, would forestall conflicts between cage fish farmers and regular fishermen.

Research by the Kenya Marine Fisheries Institute (KMFI) at the time showed that Lake Victoria, then home to 6,000 cages, had a capacity to absorb 25,427 fish cages in an area of 62,132 square metres, with an annual production capacity of over 10,000 tonnes of Nile perch and tilapia fish. KMFI further called for regulations to stop haphazard installation of cages, which also affect navigation of the lake.

It was during Bett’s term that the government introduced a crop insurance scheme to cushion farmers against losses linked to adverse weather conditions. The scheme was tested in Bungoma, Nakuru, and Embu counties and was subsidised at a cost of Ksh300 million. While the jury is still out on the success of the scheme, its initiation helped to inculcate an insurance culture in farmers.

The appointment of Bett, a Nandi like Koskei, conformed to a tradition long-established by Kenya’s presidents of not tinkering with the restive ethnic arithmetic in Cabinet reshuffles. This was all the more pronounced during President Kenyatta’s first term when he, in all but name, shared power with his deputy, William Ruto.

And it is through the DP that Bett came to the Cabinet. If there was any doubt about Bett’s closeness to DP Ruto, it was banished when the latter turned up as his best man during his private wedding held on April 25, 2018 in Karen, Nairobi. Among the guests were Bett’s former Cabinet colleagues, Phyllis Kandie and Prof Jacob Kaimenyi.

By the time of Bett’s appointment to head the agriculture docket, the government had spent more than Ksh25.6 billion on a fertiliser subsidy programme, reaching 1.5 million farmers. Bett sought to expand the project to increase the areas covered and credited it with a growth in maize production from about 35 million bags to 42 million bags annually.

His predecessor, Koskei, had overseen efforts to revitalise coffee farming and exports through a debt waiver of Ksh9.5 billion to farmers, development of the Coffee Kenya mark of origin for brand visibility, removal of the 4 per cent ad valorem levy and the establishment of the Commodities Fund to support 100,000 coffee farmers at a cost of Ksh2.6 billion.

Detailing the successes of his ministry, Bett said he had picked up from where Koskei had left off, and cited other initiatives such as subsidised fertiliser, mechanisation of farming, and livestock insurance. Sadly, it later emerged that the fertiliser subsidy programme had been hijacked by powerful cartels in the agriculture sector and State officers, who stole and repackaged the input to sell as regular fertiliser.

Over 10,000 bags of fertiliser imported by the government were stolen in 2016, much, of it before reaching the market, leading to the suspension of 22 managers at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), which handled the storage and distribution of the commodity, as investigations were started.

Whereas his forward-looking strategies while he was CEO of the Kenya Seed Company earned Bett a reformist image in the eyes of many farmers, he would quickly discover that the agriculture docket can be a poisoned chalice.
Away from the corporate-style PowerPoint presentations and cocktails, big money interests with tentacles in the administration retained control of the lucrative trade in sugar, maize, and fertiliser.

A staple of most Kenyan families, maize, like sugar, is a highly politicised crop, going back to the Moi and Kibaki administrations. Bett’s political godfather and Deputy President William Ruto was quite familiar with this scenario. In 2010, Dr Ruto, who was Agriculture minister, was suspended by then Prime Minister Raila Odinga over corruption allegations, but Kibaki rejected the move. At the time Kibaki and Odinga were in an uneasy coalition government that became etched in people’s memory as “serikali ya nusu mkate”.

Bett’s star in the ministry he had worked most of his life started dimming when MPs accused him of lying about the state of food security. He would also be accused of importing maize at the expense of local farmers, allegations he denied.

In February 2019, an ad hoc committee of the Senate released a report accusing him and then Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich of being responsible for flooding the local market with maize imports that distorted the prices of the commodity.

“The crisis that led to the influx of duty-free maize was a ploy by both the public and private sector players to profiteer from distortion of the maize value chain. The Gazette Notices No 3575 dated April 13, 2017, No 6398 dated July 3, 2017, and No 7248 dated July 27, 2017, were open-ended and done without any valid reasons and justification,” said the committee in its report.

The report recommended that Bett, the former Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Development, be prosecuted for his alleged role in the matter. This was never followed through.

Luckily for Bett, the report came just a couple of weeks before the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. At the time, the Jubilee leadership needed to close ranks following a divisive presidential contest in 2017, and it came as no surprise when the ad-hoc committee’s report was shelved.

But while Bett was to escape prosecution, he had found himself in the cold in January 2018, having been left out of the list of new Cabinet secretaries named by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the start of his second term.
Having left the Cabinet under a cloud of graft allegations, Bett’s close friendship with Deputy President Ruto would again prove to be a godsend as he soon found himself appointed as an envoy.

In February 2018, the National Assembly approved Bett’s nomination as Kenya’s envoy to India, alongside similar postings for his former colleagues, Dan Kazungu (Tanzania); Phyllis Kandie (Belgium and the European Union); Prof Judi Wakhungu (France); Dr Cleopa Mailu (Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Geneva); Prof Jacob Kaimenyi (Kenya’s Representative to Unesco); Hassan Wario (Austria); and former State House Comptroller Lawrence Lenayapa (Netherlands).

In his new role, Bett also became the High Commissioner-Designate to the Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and the Republic of Singapore, all combining to make a juggernaut of a mission.

Yet even before his exit from the Cabinet, Bett had had his fair share of goofs.

For instance, in August 2016, he told guests at a State House Summit on Agriculture that the country had sufficient food reserves, contradicting claims by maize millers who insisted that there was a serious shortage of maize. The biting hunger that followed would embarrass the government as it turned out the millers were right.

During his stint as Agriculture CS, Bett reappointed Dr Nathaniel Arap Tum (now deceased) to the board of the Kenya Seed Company. Interestingly, Dr Tum was himself a former CEO of Kenya Seed, but was forced out in 2003 amid claims that in 2001 he had irregularly transferred ownership of the company to private hands. However, Dr Tum had fought the allegations in court and won, but his appointment still raised eyebrows.

The 2001 deal diluted the state’s shareholding in Kenya Seed through the Agricultural Development Corporation, with majority going to private owners, but the government reclaimed ownership of the firm in 2003.

During Kenyatta’s tenure, Kenya made great strides in the march towards Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) crops, beginning with the approval of GM cotton, which he saw as the path to industrialisation. Besides the political goodwill, which was given right from State House, President Kenyatta also placed Prof Hamadi Boga, biotech scientist and an avowed supporter of GM technology, at the centre of the ministry as Principal Secretary.

Key officials at the department of industrialisation have also been instrumental in the GM push. Progress on GM maize has, however, not been made, with the train getting stuck at the trial stage.

As minister, Bett had to allay concerns that the government was opposed to research in the crops, saying there was a need to be sure of the impact of any research before it is cleared to proceed. “The research on GM maize was not stopped,” Bett said, even as he added that government was not satisfied with the way the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which was spearheading the research, wanted to handle the process.

“This is what raised alarm over the field trials. Kenya has not reached that level as the government doubts there is a proper mechanism in place to prevent things like cross-pollination which can contaminate conventional maize,” Bett told journalists in 2017.

His response came at a time when scientists were trying to convince the government to support GMO research in the country and lift the ban on consumption of locally produced GM crops.

The GM maize varieties at KALRO’s Kitale and Kiboko confined field locations are resistant to the stem borer, which is responsible for up to 20 per cent of maize loss. The variety is also drought-tolerant, and scientists bet on it to combat Kenya’s dire food insecurity. Kenya in 2010 banned importation of GM products over health fears even though research has not found the food, which is consumed in many parts of the world, harmful.

Thus, besides his maize importation troubles, some pundits point to Bett’s unenthusiastic support of GM as another reason President Kenyatta was not keen on reappointing him in 2018. Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt, looking at Bett’s qualifications and experience, that he was a perfect pick for a sector he understood inside out. His failure to win reappointment in January 2018 denied the country a fuller evaluation of his contribution to President Kenyatta’s legacy and the country’s development.

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