Kiprop Cheruiyot, once a large scale maize farmer from the Rift Valley was in early 1970s to late 1980s a rich man thanks to farming which was then rewarding handsomely.
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Those years, he recalls, cooperative societies and Kenya Farmers Association (KFA) used to take care of farmers by providing them with subsidised fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and seeds.
“The government used to adequately fund National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) and KFA to buy all maize at good prices.
It was illegal to sell maize outside the country and farmers from one region could not sell their produce outside their local cooperative societies, NCPB or KFA,” Cheruiyot says.
Cheruiyot, 67, is a father of six who used maize proceeds to educate all his children, improve on his cattle breed and meet other obligations without incurring debts or borrowing loans.
“Those days farmers were rich people. Anything good including houses and cows belonged to them. We were the envy of many, including those who were in senior positions in government and parastatals,” he says.
He recalls the government having a scheme, Guaranteed Minimum Returns (GMR) to cushion farmers against vagaries of weather.
“When the insurance was removed, we were left on our own. But the bitter part is when cooperative societies and KFA collapsed because of politics.
“We were forced to run to commercial banks to borrow money to finance farming. Because of delayed payments and crop failures, most of us including me became poor,” he adds.
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Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) which was later established through an Act of Parliament, he says gave little money, not enough for large commercial farming because many farmers rushed there to rescue their business.
“In 1999, I took Sh750,000 from a bank but I was unable to pay in time. The loan whose interest rate was 12 per cent accumulated to Sh2.5 million. In 2003, my 20 acres of land fertile land was sold by the bank to recover the money,” says.
In the 1970s, the government set aside money for the construction of Ken-Ren Chemical and Fertiliser factory but it failed to take off.
Since then there have been empty talks of building others to remedy financial burden farmers undergo in accessing fertilisers during planting season. Farmers progressed well in early 1970s to late 1980s when cooperative societies used to assist in availing subsidised seeds and fertilisers in time.
National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) and Kenya Farmers Association (KFA), had marketing agreements with the societies.
During those times, post harvest losses were minimal because societies used to provide storage free of charge. In early 1990s, these cooperative societies began to crumble because of politics and after being denied funds from the exchequer, leaving farmers on their own.
About that time cheap maize imports were allowed especially around harvesting time, forcing farmers to desperately sell their produce at throw away prices.
Before the mismanagement of KFA which started in 1983 when former chairman Reuben Chesire was removed in controversial circumstances, it used to provide subsided inputs including pesticides amd herbicides to farmers which ensured production.
It also used to provide subsidised farm implements such as tractors to farmers.
Further, KFA which has been reduced to a shell due to years of mismanagement, used to give farmers and cooperative societies seasonal credits to improve on maize production.
The Nakuru based organisation, is now a limited liability company. It changed from KFA to Kenya Grain Growers Cooperative Union (KGGCU) to now KFA Ltd.
“The collapse of cooperative societies spelt doom to hopes of farmers producing enough maize and to build themselves economically,” says Kipkorir Menjo, a KFA director for North Rift.
In early 1980s, the government withdrew GMR, which used to cushion farmers against adverse weather conditions, citing misuse.
“It worked like insurance. When it was withdrawn, farmers started recording heavy loses, forcing most out of business,” says Ernest Tormoi of Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers. Those years, the country, he says, used to produce enough grain for local consumption and for export.
In 1980, the government even donated free maize to Zambia whose population was starving.
Because of years of privatisation of the grain sector, Zambia now produces and exports Panar, a high-yielding maize seed variety grown by farmers in the highlands of the North and South Rift.
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When Agriculture Ministry withdrew extension officers who used to offer technical advice, good crop husbandry was compromised, leading to reduced yields and soil erosion that continues to sweep away top fertile soils.
Mismanagement of Kenya Seed Company (KSC) and change of ownership from a government parastatal to a limited liability compromised production of quality seeds has led to emergence of seeds susceptible to diseases.
Farmers have continued to get less profit margins due to packaging. The government has over the years said the standard packaging would be 25kg instead of the current 90kg but it has not actualised it by enforcing the rule.
Uasin Gishu Senator Margaret Kamar and the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee says farmers have suffered for long in terms of getting market for their produce, access to cheap credit and NCPB’s failure to pay them in time.