Sorghum farmers counting losses after county’s contract farming program backfired

Naftaly Kithinji (left) and at his neighbour Albert Githinji's farm where sorghum had been planted but failed to yield. The two are among farmers who did not harvest sorghum in Umande. [Photo: Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

When Governor Ndiritu Muriithi got into power in 2017, top on his to-do list was how to turn farming into a profitable venture for residents.

Mr Muriithi latched onto the idea of enrolling farmers into contract farming programmes, where deals would be signed with various companies to commit to offer their expertise and buy produce at fixed prices.

The agriculture department opted for sorghum, French beans, canola, garden herbs, sugar snaps and dairy products, among others to kick-start the initiative.

The governor accompanied officials on a week-long campaign to convince farmers across the county to join the programme. For sorghum, the plan was for the agriculture department to secure an agreement with East African Maltings Ltd (EAML) to buy the crop from farmers.

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Farmers like Albert Githinji listened keenly and did some quick math. The most appealing crop in terms of projected profits was clearly sorghum.

Mr Githinji calculated that if everything went according to plan, he would be a millionaire by the time Ndiritu’s first term ended in 2022. To further sweeten the deal, the department of trade and cooperative development agreed to loan money to saccos to finance farmers who lacked capital.

“The agriculture department told us to reserve land to plant the crop. We were taken through training sessions and promised that we would make money from the project,” said Githinji.

But when The Standard visited Githinji’s farm in Daiga, Umande ward, within Laikipia East, the farmer could not hide his frustration and disappointment as he narrated how his dream of striking it rich crumbled before his eyes.

A visual inspection of his one-acre piece of land only revealed overgrown weeds and not a single sorghum plant could be seen.

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Githinji was among the farmers whose seeds germinated but instead of developing a head of grain, the crops produced black sticky mould. 

“My wife had discouraged me against the project but I convinced her that we would get rich. I had promised her a solar water pump once we got the money. But I have now become the laughing stock because my neighbours planted maize and beans as I was busy safeguarding ‘my source of wealth’,” he said.

It has emerged that the contract farming project flopped from the start after key players failed to execute the plan as required. Agriculture officials neither signed legal contracts with EAML nor visited sorghum farms to conduct inspections.

Faced problems

The Nanyuki Equator Savings and Credit Co-operative Society (Necco Fosa), which had received a Sh700,000 loan from the county’s revolving fund to assist farmers buy seeds, fertiliser and herbicides, did not fare any better.

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“We were optimistic about the project at the beginning... we felt that we were promoting a dry-area resistant crop that would benefit farmers. We went out of our way to help them but we faced problems. We later realised that they planted in the wrong season when there were heavy rains,” said Necco Fosa chief executive officer Faith Muchoki.

According to the CEO, they financed several groups in Sweetwaters, Umande, Ol Moran, Munyu and Ng’arua areas. The acreage put under sorghum was 275 acres as each group was required to farm a minimum of 36 acres.

And with more farmers enrolling in the project, Necco Fosa sought another loan of Sh1.7 million from the county, which Ms Muchoki said was disbursed late.

“We had bought a lot of seeds because we had been promised the money would come in early. But it was deposited in May when farmers had already planted and the mess had been done,” said the CEO, adding that the Fosa diverted the Sh1.7 million to other projects.

By May last year, many farms had flooded and the seeds did not germinate while in other areas, the seeds germinated but did not produce sorghum.

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Out of the targeted bumper harvest of 412 tonnes, only a few farmers harvested a total of five tonnes. And even if the harvest had been good, farmers would have faced a challenge selling the sorghum because they did not have a legal contract with EAML, a subsidiary of East African Breweries Ltd.

County Agriculture Executive Lucy Murugi claimed that after EAML learnt of the woes facing farmers during the trial project, the firm withdrew its support.

“I agree we went wrong because the farmers did not have a legal contract with the company although many farmers we registered planted sorghum. We failed in planning and next time we will do more research and better planning to avoid such huge losses,” said Dr Murugi.

She revealed that individual farmers were advised to apply for loans from the county’s enterprise fund kitty to finance the projects.

“We also suspect farmers could have bought wrong seed varieties that could not be used for brewing alcohol,” said Murugi.

But EAML Managing Director Lawrence Maina said there there was no agreement with farmers and hence the company could not follow up or dispatch its agronomists to inspect farms and to advise farmers.

“We contract farmers directly or through an agent but we do not have any legal agreement document with farmers in Laikipia. And again, no one has come to us to tell us that there was sorghum harvested and wasting in the stores,” said Mr Maina.

He, however, said that farmers who had planted independently had managed to sell their sorghum to the company and that they would still buy any harvested grain as long as it met their standards.

With most farmers failing to break even or post a profit, there has been confusion whether they will still have to repay loans advanced through their various cooperative societies. “The farmers will have to pay us because we are also paying the county government. We will pursue them since there was no agreement that if there was crop failure, they were not going to pay. But if the county writes off the loans, we will also write-off what the farmers owe us,” said Muchoki.

The CEO added that in an attempt to make life easier for the farmers, the sacco had given them more time to repay their loans.

Some farmers who harvested the sorghum but did not get a market said they were considering selling it as livestock fodder.

Peter Macharia, who had five acres of the crop in Sweetwaters area, told The Standard that he spent over Sh50,000 to grow and harvest the grain, which was lying in his store.

Made losses

“I used to hire a labourer at Sh300 daily to ensure the sorghum was not destroyed by birds. We had been promised harvesting machines but I ended up harvesting manually at a cost of Sh15,000 and still it was not bought,” said Mr Macharia.

Besides incurring high production costs, Macharia said he owed Necco Fosa about Sh7,000 for the seeds, fertiliser and herbicides.

Naftaly Kithinji, another farmer in Umande, uprooted sorghum from his two-acre farm, three months after planting, when the crop produced a black substance instead of grains.

“When I realised that I was about to make losses, I removed them and planted maize and beans, which did well,” said Mr Kithinji.

The farmer said he spent Sh20,000 on the project and had hoped to buy a high-grade dairy cow if the project succeeded.

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Governor Ndiritu MuriithiAlbert GithinjiSoghum farmersEAML