Three years ago, Asmin Oparanya walked into her farm in Mumias, Kakamega County, and did something she never imagined she would do.
Carrying a panga, she slashed the sugarcane plants one after another until the large plantation had been reduced to heaps of stalks piled on the ground.
“I was tired, and it was long overdue,” Oparanya says, summing up her life as a sugarcane farmer.
Oparanya, 46, had grown sugarcane for nearly two decades. She recalls a time when sugarcane farming was associated with opulence and success; a time when farmers in Western anticipated the boom that came after sugarcane companies paid for their produce.
“I was supplying Mumias Sugar Company and they paid well. Most farmers depended on that money to feed their families and pay school fees,” she says.
Soon, signs that things were not okay started springing up.
First, there was delay in collecting sugarcane, then payments would take too long to mature, and sometimes the company would pay in installments, with a promise that it would top up when things stabilised. But they never did.
“We kept hoping everything would be fine, but it just got worse,” she says.
The more they waited, more news on slowing down of Mumias Sugar Company kept coming. Every time they watched news on the sinking sugar giant, it sparked fears that they may never benefit from sugarcane farming like they once did.
Uncertainty and hopelessness
Oparanya says it was a period full of uncertainty, anxiety and hopelessness.
“We had all these sugarcane plants in our farms, with nobody to collect them. We would invite retailers selling for local consumption to come and buy, but much of it got wasted,” she says.
One morning, she woke up, looked around her farm and decided she could not do it anymore. She decided to cut it all out, and seek another option.
The option that appealed to her was something she had heard about, but sounded nearly impossible.
“I would be at the market and someone would mention a type of rice that grows without water. I would tell them that is not possible. I grew up knowing rice grows in water puddles,” says Oparanya.
It is until she took a stroll around the village that she realised the viability of what she terms as “magical” rice. Her neighbours had taken it up, and had turned their sugarcane farms into rice fields — on dry land.
Johnson Irungu, the head of Crop Division at the Ministry of Agriculture, says the type of rice is called Nerica and is gaining popularity in Western.
“The rice does not require a lot of water. The farmer needs to have good soil that can hold water, and they are ready to start growing rice,” says Mr Irungu.
Oparanya says she got her first seeds from someone who had grown Nerica before and immediately sowed it on her farm. Her first harvest on the quarter acre was not a lot, but she says she is excited at the possibility the new crop brings.
“This is the second time I’m planting, and I think this time it will be better because after experimenting the first time, I feel more confident,” she says.
Marion Gathumbi, in charge of rice promotion programme at the Ministry of Agriculture, says there is hope for farmers who want to grow Nerica rice.
“In one hectare farm, a farmer can harvest two to four tonnes of the rice upon harvesting,” says Gathumbi.
She adds that narika rice is phenomenal because it grows just like maize, and farmers in all areas of the country can take it up and grow it.
“Nerica seeds are available at the Kenya Seed Company for farmers who are interested in it,” says Gathumbi.
Oparanya is among many of the farmers in Western Kenya who are growing it. She says even though sugarcane farming did not work, her heart was still in farming and is willing to try anything that provides a promise of good harvest.
She also keeps a cow, which she says is her trial for mixed farming. Having a cow meant she needed to get a sustainable food plan for her animal.
“I was not ready to employ a herdsboy. I decided to plant Napier grass,” she says.
When the grass flourished, she realised she could feed her cow and have some left over for sale to other farmers keeping livestock.
“Some people tease me and say I have not gotten over growing sugarcane because Napier plants are similar to sugarcane from a distance,” she says.
Oparanya also grows cassava and maize on her farm and sells them in the local market, keeping only a small portion for her family’s consumption.
“Farming can give you money, but you have to be dedicated to it and be flexible to overcome uncertainties that come with it,” she says.
She adds that when sugarcane farming did not work out, most farmers got discouraged and some abandoned farming altogether.
“Finding something new to grow gives hope,” she says while weeding her rice plantation.
However, Oparanya is yet to master the dynamics of growing the crop for maximum yield. Even though she has it in her farm, she says she learns something new every day.
She talks of days when she wakes up and realises the leaves look different, and she has to consult county agricultural officers to find a solution.
There are also days when the crops seem to wilt from too much sun, a situation she says is easily remedied by watering them.
“They are sensitive crops, but once you learn how to care for them, you realise there is potential in earnings from this waterless rice,” she says.
Oparanya says growing the new type of rice is a sign that despite the losses they got when sugarcane farming lost value, they have found something to cushion them.
The rice is a representation of a new beginning—a promise she and other farmers hold on to and hope will turn their fortunes.