Shock and panic has engulfed Mt. Kenya region over possibilities of rain failures in March, April and May signaling of mass failure of tea, coffee and horticultural crops which drive the economy of the region.
Already, tea bushes are drying in some areas, while coffee flowering has withered due to no rainfall in some areas. The rivers are also drying, affecting flow of water into the many micro-irrigation community projects that are used to grow crops like tomatoes, cabbages, bananas, and sukumawiki.
All these provide much of the household income, with tea and coffee being prominent cash crops while the vegetables and bananas are predominantly grown for sale to Nairobi, and other cities and major towns across the country.
Sensing the severity of the problem, the Council of Governors on Wednesday called on President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare the drought a national disaster to enable emergency utilisation of funds to caution people from the associated ravages.
Among them, Governors Martin Wambora of Embu and Ndiritu Muriithi of Laikipia said the situation on the ground is worsening by the day.
“We wish to assure Kenyans that the County Governments have put in place aggressive measures to ensure that Kenyans access food and water during this period,” said Laikipia Governor.
Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) has however warned that drought is imminent whether rains come or not.
“We should not be talking of whether it will rain or not because even if it rains now, the planting season has already passed and we should focus on dealing with the situation at hand,” said Igad Executive Secretary Mahboub Maalim.
According to Tea Growers Association, production is expected to hit below 50 percent and much lower if rains do not come soon. The association said even if rains come, it would take at least two months for the crop to recover.
Less tea means farmers are earning less per month as are paid a monthly fee for the kilos deliver in the corresponding period by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). It will not help that KTDA had earlier warned farmers to expect lower bonus that is usually paid in the fourth quarter of the year citing a drop of 17 percent in tea prices.
The situation is worse for dairy farmers who have to grabble with low milk prices amid declining pasture because of low rains. Most dairy farmers grow own pasture as a cost-cutting measure, supplementing it with commercial feeds whose prices have also increased because of the shortage of maize.
The Kenya Dairy Board (KDB) announced on Tuesday that it shall allow the importation of 200 million litres of milk from Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda to bridge the production deficit, according to its Managing Director Margaret Kibogy.
The situation will definitely have a negative disruption on the economy of Mt. Kenya region, which like the rest of Kenya, has to grabble with the increasing food prices.
Household income will be severely affected as is directed to buying foods, slowing development projects at a family level and investments in the expansion of agribusiness ventures.
It is also a blow to President Uhuru Kenyatta Big4Agenda pillar of increasing food production to a level of exporting surplus and providing raw materials to food processing factories at the cottage and industrial level.
Experts advise on options for farmers
Henry Kinyua, the immediate former County Minister for Agriculture in Nyeri County and currently the East Africa Head of the global organisation known as Digital Green says livestock farmers should reduce their stock while still in good health to avoid losses when they die.
“Farmers should learn to accept the reality when the dry spell sets in and follow the advice given by the government and agricultural experts to avoid massive losses and hunger. Dairy farmers should conserve any fodder they have in their farms right now either in silage form or use other methods.”
“Any dairy farmer who had a plan to increase their stock should also put it on hold. Those farmers who rushed to plant when rains were expected should not plant again as this may lead to more loss of seeds. Those who are irrigating should also investigate further as I foresee a situation where getting farming water from rivers will be stopped in the next 3-4 weeks,” said Kinyua who has wide knowledge of working with small scale farmers across Africa.
He said most of the rivers that originate from Mt. Kenya and Aberdares have minimal water. He said households should buy maize now where it is available and if possible, come together and buy in bulk.
“This is because the price is expected to rise in the near future. If you buy in bulk and store the maize it will come in handy in the near future,” said Kinyua in an interview.
“Those producing pumpkins should also store them. They can easily cover them with soil. Everyone else including urban folks use little water you have sparingly, and financially prepare for increased food prices,” Kinyua said.
Lack of food by small scale farmers for their families is their greatest worry according to David Ndegwa, an agribusiness advisor. Ndegwa says it is unfortunate that these days, farmers sell almost all the produce after harvesting and resort to buying food for their families later.
“We should learn from ants, they gather food and store it whenever it is about to rain. As they live in holes, this food comes in handy during the rainy season.
Today it’s very hard to see a farmer with a granary. We should consider building granaries as food storage is the only way that will ensure one feeds his family without spending a lot of money during the dry season,” he said.
“We are looking at a situation where food prices are going to shoot in the next few weeks and this calls for early preparedness. I advise farmers to buy maize as it is not too expensive at the moment together with rice and store it. We have bags in the market that are storing grains even for a year and farmers should make use of them,” he said.
But why maize and rice? “Maize is the staple food in Kenya and since the millers have started increasing the price of maize flour, maize prices will go up automatically as they ask for more maize from the government. I foresee a situation where a packet of maize flour may sell up to Sh200 in August and then people will start looking for an alternative.”
“Rice will be a natural alternative and as many people turn to it, its price will also increase. Remember a lot of rice comes from Mwea and since the rivers have started drying up, there is not enough water to grow a lot. Therefore, rice prices will also increase and the best time of buying and stocking these two grains is now. One person usesm0-100kgs of maize in a year which is approximately one bag.