KISUMU, KENYA: For the past five months, Vitalis Okuta has been making countless trips from his home in Ombeyi to Western Kenya Rice Mills, situated three kilometres away within National Irrigation Authority (NIA) premises in Ahero.
His trips are aimed at getting updates on the government’s progress in acquiring the tens of tons of rice farmers have stored at the mills.
But last week, Okuta was among the over 600 farmers who got the shock of their lives after the government claimed that its stores were full and could not purchase any more rice from them.
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At this time, Ahero Irrigation Scheme had only supplied Sh12 million worth of rice, out of the Sh70 million worth of harvest they had last year, cutting them off from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Sh500 million pledge for rice farmers across the country.
On Wednesday, Okuta was a worried man. From his four-acre parcel within bloc D of the scheme, he managed to harvest about six tons of paddy which he had milled in preparation for supply to the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC).
“We had hoped that the corporation would buy the rice, but we have been shocked by the latest communication that their stores are full and they cannot stock any more rice,” he said.
He added: “What has filled the stores if all our rice is lying here? Could there be some games being played? We want our leaders to come out and help us.”
His biggest worry is now the influx of middlemen who are thronging the area to dupe farmers after realising that there is no market for their produce.
“Unscrupulous traders are conning farmers in corridors and buying their produce at very low prices. Some farmers have no option as they have to take their children to school, and also try to reduce losses which would hit them if their produce continues to stay in the stores,” said Okuta.
His troubles are shared by Fredrick Athembo whose harvest from his two-acre parcel in Bloc K remains at the drying yard since July last year.
According to Athembo, farmers in the same bloc are expected to begin planting for the next season, but lack of market for the previous harvests has derailed the process.
“Out of the 70 acres in our bloc, 20 are not ready for planting. By now there should be crops in the entire field, but many farmers are shying away as they fear for the worst,” he said.
Emmanuel Juma, another farmer who is also the chairman of the farmers in the scheme said at least 600 tons of paddy is lying at the scheme’s stores in Ahero, and which risk going bad due to the increase3d moisture content in the environment due to the rainy weather.
According to Juma, the over 400 farmers affected begun harvesting in July last year, and are supposed to be back to their farms for a new season.
“Usually when we harvest in July, by the end of August, farmers have disposed all their produce and are preparing for the next planting season. This is not the case this season as our money is tied in the produce lying here,” he said.
Juma said middlemen have already thronged the area, and are taking advantage of the farmers’ predicaments to offer low prices in order to acquire the paddy.
According to Juma, the KNTC had set Sh45 as the price of a kilo of paddy. But with the corporation now shutting its doors for more supply, the middlemen have raided the area to purchase paddy at lower prices, a situation which has seen farmers go into a loss.
Juma said some traders from Nyatike in Migori County, and across the border in Uganda have been visiting the area and purchasing paddy at between Sh30 and Sh35 per kilo, against the KNTC recommended price of Sh45 for the same quantity.
“If something is not done in time, farmers are likely to lose everything, and this may lead to a crisis as farmers will fail to get back to their farms,” he said.
Western Kenya National Irrigation Authority Manager Joel Tanui said Ahero scheme alone is currently holding rice worth Sh50 million.
He said the harvest has lately improved as farmers thronged their farms and took advantage of the government’s intervention to assure them of the market for their produce.
“Currently we are expanding the schemes and many more farmers are coming on board, which means more production,” he said.
Kisumu County Chief Officer for Agriculture Paul Omanga on Thursday admitted that marketing remains a big headache for the produce from the area, noting that lack of coordination between the national and county governments, as well as other stakeholders, has led to uncoordinated disposal of rice from the area.
"As a county government, our key role is to promote agriculture. Marketing is not our bit, but I will engage relevant stakeholders to try to find a solution to this issue," he said.
The KNTC top leadership is expected to tour Ahero on Friday so as to meet farmers and other stakeholders in a bid to sort the market impasse.