How people-centred development has elevated Makueni

Work with the people. Let them tell you what they want. Of course, there will be technical input but let the people be in governance



He speaks softly and pauses to listen whenever he is interjected, qualities those encountering him for the first time may mistake for weakness.

Professor Kivutha Kibwana listens more than he speaks. And he lends an ear to just about  everyone and everything, picking along the way valuable lessons and insights that a majority, especially those in his academic and political class would have no patience for.

Behind the façade lies a meticulous, unassuming human being who hardened in the trenches of the struggle for multiparty democracy in the 1980s and 90s against former President Moi’s strongman regime.

Kibwana started off as a lecturer in the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law in 1977 at only 23 to a very exciting career, as “the pursuit of ideas and growing and mentoring young people was exciting.” He grew, over the years, to become Dean, School of Law.

While at the university, he was also active in civil society, particularly from around 1988, when he worked with many people in the Pro-democracy movement. It was in these two fields, academia and civil society, that Kibwana cemented his beliefs in people-centred governance, and envisioned a government that entirely worked for the people.

While working at the Centre for Law and Research International (Clarion), a group he started in 1993 with other university lecturers as a research organisation providing opportunity for scholars to carry out research away from the prying eyes of the state at a time when activities within the universities were highly censored, Kibwana developed important capacities in research, public education and advocacy. Clarion was registered in 1994 as an NGO.

Research, in particular, carried him to all corners of the country, gathering ideas from people of all walks of life, entrenching even more his belief that people participation is the hallmark of development. Out of this, the good professor and his colleagues in the struggle wrote a lot on corruption and good governance.

“The thing about both academia and civil society was that we were trying to lay a foundation for a good Constitution, good laws, even an ethical framework for our country. Generally, even when it was difficult, it was very fulfilling,” he offers.

In 2003, the professor of law decided to get into politics “to follow the Constitution now that it had gone into Parliament, to be part and parcel of the process of getting it passed.” It was, he confesses, not easy.

He served as Member of Parliament for Makueni, as an assistant minister and minister for Environment and Natural Resources, and also for Land. When he lost his Parliamentary seat in 2007, he served as President Mwai Kibaki’s advisor for Constitutional, Parliamentary and Youth Affairs.

Makueni County, therefore, was lucky to get as her inaugural governor not just a well-groomed man but also a well-grounded academic, manager and a people’s champion. Unfortunately, as it became clearer immediately after forming his first government in 2013, the MCAs had no clue who they were dealing with. Most likely, they were cheated by the Professor’s humility and took him for a pushover. Little did they know that behind the persona was a resolute spirit with a pre-set vision and growth trajectory that not even an entire Assembly could sway.

They, the Governor says, demanded to be given Sh1 billion of the less than Sh6 billion development kitty that financial year. At the time, the Assembly had only been allowed Sh187 million.

Sh1 billion at the disposal of an Assembly of 100 workers, including the 47 MCA’s, for recurrent expenditure is something to which the Governor could not acquiesce. Those who have worked with the governor, especially when he was the director at Clarion, say he is a meticulous financial planner and a religious follower of the budget.

“I thought they were joking. But they said ‘we are the ones who pass the budget and we will not pass the budget if you don’t reserve Sh1 billion for us,” the governor recollects.

He stood his ground, and so did they. “We had a protracted tussle until, at some point in March, they passed the budget –the financial year ends in June – leaving me with three months to implement my budget items.”

The trend in the majority of the counties at the time manifested as assemblies bullying executives into appropriating them money from development kitties which they used for self-aggrandisement, mainly through local and international touring under the guise of benchmarking. The Makueni County Assembly did not want to be left behind.

“The basic thing was this inability to separate private money from public money and I said to myself I would rather not be a governor if I am going to preside over kleptocracy.”

It was a filthy war in which the county assembly rode roughshod over the Executive, threatening ministers, especially for Finance, with impeachment whenever he called their bluff on money demands, with all dialogue and mediation, even by elders, failing.

“When the people’s turn came in 2017, only one of those MCAs was voted back in. He calls himself survivor. And he was not part of a lot of those shenanigans. So that was a lesson,” the governor reflects.

And so Makueni is now up and running, setting the example that Devolution, if people-centred, can be the best thing to ever have happened to Kenya.

So, why is the county the envy of all the other 46 counties? Why is Governor Kibwana’s name on the lips of many Kenyans? What is he doing in Makueni that is making him the darling of not only the Makueni people but also of a lot of Kenyans across the country?

At the time of going to press, all the 47 governors had gathered in Makueni for the first peer learning experience with a lot of Kibwana’s firsts on display including the much celebrated public participation model that ensured locals have a say in the county affairs.

“I am informed that this, (sharing photos on Facebook) County Hospital in Makueni County was built and equipped from scratch,” advocate of the High Court Zebedee Ongoya recently posted in social media. “Makueni seems to be making progress DESPITE the challenges facing Devolution. There are other counties that are not making progress BECAUSE of the challenges facing Devolution. As Kenyans, think of the post-Uhuru era; it may be useful to debate the role that performers like Prof Kivutha Kibwana must play in that era purely because of their proven capacity to manage resources and make progress,” said Ongoya.

Politics is good, economics is better

To start with, Kibwana’s philosophy on development is amazing. It is as simple as it could ever get. It is about the people, he says. “Work with the people. Let them tell you what they want. Of course, there will be technical input but let the people be in governance.”

On the whole, it is about empowering the households. Working with statistics, the Makueni government has broken down the demographics of its population and works to empower each of the 3617 villages, from where development needs are identified for prioritisation.

Doing the budget, for instance, starts from the villages where the people, in forums, discuss their needs. In the last financial year, about 120,000 from a population of about 1 million came forward to discuss the budget. Even children, the Governor says, through poems and songs, contribute to the making of the budget. It is at the Ward level that people come up with projects that cannot be changed. The apex body is the County People’s Forum, elected, with which the County Government enters into a performance contract for the implementation of the people’s projects. Not even the Governor and his Deputy, Adelina Mwau, can alter the budget once it has come through the people’s forums.

Then there’s a project management committee elected by the beneficiaries. A project is paid for only after this committee’s approval. The sustainability committee comes in to ensure the project is viable.

“It is the philosophy of ‘this development belongs to these people’. You let them be at the centre of actualising it. You are a midwife, a facilitator. Participation is key because, remember, we said we want a people-driven Constitution, and now that we have it, we must also affirm people-led development. That’s the logic of how I see development proceeding,” he says.

Inset: Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo (First left), Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana (2nd left) and Polish Ambassador to Kenya Jacek Bazanski (far right) inspect Makindu Hospital Trauma Centre.

Makueni, looking at it through the eyes of the Governor, has a lot of resources. They have good soils, rivers and a good climate for irrigation, placing agriculture high on the list of priorities for the County. Recently, the governor reveals, they have adopted a system that he says is used by Bishop Titus Masika of Yatta, of farm ponds so that every of its 200,000 households have farm ponds that can grow crops to maturity when the rains fall short.

“We are trying to really emphasise irrigation so that we don’t rely on rain agriculture; the crops need water, but not necessarily rain water. Unfortunately, we only have about 10% of our irrigation potential so far. So we really want to go far and ensure that these good soils are irrigated as appropriate. The young people like irrigation, only that they are short term, like three-month crops and not long term. It is therefore not true that young people are not interested in agriculture; the question is, what kind of the agriculture?” the Governor says.

The County, he observes, is also well positioned as it is near to Nairobi and a chunk of it on the Nairobi Mombasa highway. They also easily access northern Tanzania from the Emali-Loitoktok Road to Moshi, Arusha up to Dar es Salaam, providing a market for its huge potential in agriculture. As well, its towns along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway could easily grow into industrial parks.

The money is in the sun

Makueni is also great with solar energy. Solar farming, the  Governor believes, could yield more money than crop farming can, and it is a conversation he is having with his people, together with the investors flocking the County with interest in the same. Then there is the sand which, he boasts, has built Nairobi and the railways with little return for the people of Makueni. Now there’s a serious conversation on value-addition on products like tiles.

Further, there’s a lot, in terms of industries going on in the County that, in fact, is the reason why many are salivating over Makueni. There are milk, fruit and honey processing plants, as well as an abattoir, and the Governor says the focus is now on having an economic activity in every ward so that people can create wealth for themselves.

Water, however, is the perennial problem in the county, as it also is in so many others on the eastern and northern frontiers of the country. The County has come up with a policy for water for drinking that targets all households and institutions. His vision is for every household to have at least two 10, 000-litre tanks to harvest rainwater. Every school, hospital and any other institutions in the county should also have sufficient water tanks.

To this end, the County has come up with a loan scheme dubbed Tetheka (Help) where the locals can borrow at 3 percent interest to buy tanks. On a larger scale, however, the County is working with the National Government’s Ministry of Water on Thwake multipurpose Dam, for instance, which is now at an advanced stage for electricity, irrigation and water for domestic use.

Kikima Dairy Plant has now started production of fresh milk.
Govenor Kivutha Kibwana during the launch of Kikima Dairy Plant.

Innovate culture

But, in his fashionable way of finding simple solutions to mega problems, Kibwana is also engaging his people to innovatively rejig culture. For dowry payments, he suggests that the first three goats in ntheo (a pre-dowry arrangement) be converted into three tanks of water. If successful, many agree, it will go a long way towards easing the problem of domestice water scarcity. It has effectively worked elsewhere. Many years back when water was a real hustle in parts of Murang’a District, the bridegroom, for taking away a member of the family who was key in fetching water for the household, was asked to bring a tank, a non-negotiable requirement, as part of the bride price. It worked marvellously.

“The idea (for all the development initiatives) is to help people achieve economic independence. That’s why I don’t really focus so much on the politics but on what we can do so that young people, those who haven’t even been to school very much, the ordinary people and those who are doing very well, all share the economy of the county and also of the country.”

But probably the most ingenious project by the Governor – and the one that many counties are seeking to emulate (neighbouring Kitui already has) – is the universal healthcare programme. Again, in typical fashion that has become the governor’s trademark, it was premised on a simple formula, but which has solved a problem the National Government has grappled with since independence.

Attributing it to the young people in his Health Department where none in the top leadership is above 35, the Governor says they considered what people who go to hospitals in the county pay on average per year, which was discovered to be about Sh100 million. With about 200,000 households, they only needed to convince each household to pay Sh500 to attain the target of Sh100 million. It was simply about how and how much people pay at the hospitals and how much they could get from the entire population to have everyone treated without paying.

But this did not come until they had put their health infrastructure in order. They doubled health facilities from the 109 that they had inherited from the county council to 233. They also doubled the number of medical staff. They nearly tripled the budget for medicine to Sh400 million and worked on punctually paying their bills to Kemsa (Kenya Medical Supplies Authority) and Meds (Mission for Essential Drugs Supplies).

After a successful pilot where the senior members of society of 65 years and above enrolled for free, the scheme was rolled out. A scheme member has one of his or her parents covered and children below 18. Two years later and it is working beautifully, for both in- and out-patient. Drugs, x-rays, theatres are available in the various facilities. At the same time, the county is encouraging its people to enrol with the NHIF, where a Makueni healthcare cardholder with the NHIF card would be reimbursed if treated in a Hospital within Makueni. “More critically,” Kibwana observes, “if one travelled out of Makueni, then they have the NHIF card to fall back on.”

To ensure adequate availability of drugs, they have a system of determining which drugs are needed in which hospital, and tracking how those drugs are dispensed. They also have a central buffer zone for distribution of drugs for ease of monitoring. Cases of diverting of drugs are dealt with severely. They also pay their medical staff on time, “to have them on our side.”

Does the governor feel the pressure of losing most of the first term to the wrangles caused by the County Assembly? No, he says. In government you plan and do the much you can in the time you can. Fundamentally, however, he is laying the foundation for entrenching Devolution, particularly people-participation and economic empowerment in the hope that the government after him will progress well.

“I am motivated to work as diligently as I can these remaining four years, to help the citizens of Makueni to attain some level of economic independence. It’s why we are very much interested in the kinds of industries we establish. They may look like little steps but if you get so many households to do something and create an income, it is fulfilling.”