The scars of its evolution from a detainee camp to the rice basket of the country are still visible to date in Mwea Irrigation Scheme.
With the scheme canals and paddies constructed in 1953 by Mau Mau detainees in forced labour during the state of emergency, the scheme has stood the test of times as it contributes to feeding the nation.
After independence, the scheme was handed over, to the Kenyan government under the Ministry of Agriculture until 1966 when the National Irrigation Board was formed through an act of parliament.
Today, the scheme that had only 3,200 families with 6,000 acres under cultivation of rice has expanded in the last few decades to include farms in the edges otherwise known as Jua Kali.
National Irrigation Authority Mwea Scheme Manager Innocent Ariemba said the scheme currently has 14,000 farmers and covers 27,000 acres under rice production with only two percent dedicated to horticultural crops.
The scheme relies on two rivers, Nyamindi and Thiba for water to irrigate the paddies.
“It was started in 1952 in Tebere section with trials carried out in 1953 using detainee labour who were held in local detention camps in the area,” Ariemba explained.
British colonial government started production on 50 acres in 1954 and then moved to Mwea. Since then the infrastructure was developed gradually and by the year 2000, over 16,000 acres were under irrigation.
“Thus far there have been developments that have seen it expand to 27,000 acres and increased the intakes, including Thiba Dam which is under construction. The dam will allow us to grow an additional 10,000 acres,” Ariemba noted.
In terms of production, out of the 27,000 acres, at least 114,000 metric tonnes of rice are produced annually which is locally consumed but with the anticipated increase of acreage, the scheme manager anticipates an increased production to 200,000 metric tonnes.
The success of the scheme continues to be lauded, with the rice economy estimated to be worth around Sh15 billion annually - a substantial rural economy.
Kirinyaga businessman Njiru Mkombozi said the rice economy is the basis of his success as he owns the largest rice mill in Mwea town.
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As one of the pioneer private millers, Mkombozi mills, at least 40 per cent of all the produce from the scheme.
“Our great grandfathers were the detainees who settled on this land after independence, they built this scheme under colonial government guard and were forced to work the fields,” he stated.
He explained that after the colonial government handed over the scheme to the Kenyan government, the farmers each got four acres of land but lived in deplorable conditions.
“The government would not allow farmers to keep dairy livestock or farm any subsistence crops, permanent houses were discouraged and most of the farmers had to work on the rice fields to survive,” he pointed out.
In an effort to control the subdivision of land families whose teenage sons turned 18 were forced to send them away from home.
“Culturally when the men come of age, their father is supposed to build them a small dwelling separate from the family, the male youth were sent off to discourage this,” he noted.
The impact of harsh by-laws on the Mwea Scheme population haunt the current generation as most of the original rice farmers still occupy mud houses and the farmers prefer to keep ox as opposed to dairy cattle.
A veteran rice farmer Moses Kareithi described the perceived success of the rice economy on the scheme as a mirage.
Kareithi who is the son of one of the original tenants of the Mwea Scheme said his father was allocated four acres which the government estimated would be sufficient to support the farmer and allow them to develop.
“After five decades of freedom the current generations such as myself have continued to subdivide the four acres which have greatly affected production and ability to sustain ourselves on this land,” he noted.
Kareithi noted without alternative sources of income most rice farmers cannot sustain themselves and support their families.
“Cultivating an acre of Pishori rice can only earn you a maximum of Sh140,000 per year, if you deduct the expenses of production and then divide it to last you 12 months, it is not adequate to sustain the farmers’ family,” he noted.
He said the historical restrictions on alternative sources of income such as dairy and horticultural farming have limited farmers’ options.
“For rice farming to be sustainable in the future, the farmers have to diversify, or they will be wiped out,” he stated.
He said the only sector benefiting from rice farming are traders.
He explained that another concern that will affect the future of the scheme is the type of rice grown.
“Pishori pays well and has a ready market, which is why farmers focus on growing it, but it is low yielding, per acre you can only produce two tonnes while a different variety introduced by Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Kwamboka which can produce five tonnes per acre,” Kareithi explained.
Economically Kwamboka has higher returns even though it will fetch a lower price than Pishori.
As Mashujaa day is held at Wanguru Stadium in the heart of the scheme, the reflections of Mwea’s thriving economy relying on the uncertain future for rice farmers linger.