Grain banks help farmers outsmart cartels and make more money

For a farmer who has repeatedly suffered poor harvests due to inadequate rains, Silas Kirimi was surprised to find himself with the opposite problem this year: What to do with last season’s bumper harvest of green gram?

Prolonged rains from March to May allowed the 45-year-old to harvest 10 bags of the mung beans - double the usual amount - from his farm in Mukothima village in central Kenya, he said.

Usually, this would present him with a dilemma.

He could either hold onto his surplus crop and risk losing it to pests or spoilage, because of poor storage, or he could sell it to middlemen, who buy grain at low prices and then sell it on for their own profit later.

“It was like throwing away my life. Any choice I made left me at a loss,” he said.

But this year, Kirimi had a third option. He sold his surplus to one of two new community-run grain storage facilities recently built in Tharaka Nithi County, where Mukothima village is located. The facilities buy beans and grains from farmers at the current market price, store it securely, and then sell it to families facing food shortages.

“The aim is to boost food security among poor households,” said Muthomi Njuki, Tharaka Nithi County’s governor.

The grain storage facilities “also protect farmers from cartelswho buy it at throwaway prices only to sell it back at thrice the price to the same farmers when there is a shortage.” County governments are building or have built community grainreserves in more than 10 counties across Kenya over the past three years, according to Noah Wekesa, chairman of the Strategic Food Reserve, a government agency.

The storage facilities are constructed and run with money from the government-backed Constituencies Development Fund, which supports grassroots development projects.

At the Mukuuni grain reserve that Kirimi uses, some 40km (25 miles) from the farmer’s home, manager Jotham Mugendi is busy recording new deposits.

The initiative helps impoverished families become moreresilient to the effects of droughts and floods on their incomes because it allows them to buy grain at an affordable price, rather than the inflated prices charged in the markets, he said.

“Families are also well-prepared for emergencies like medical bills and school fees,” Mugendi said. In the past, many farmershave had to sell all their harvest to brokers at below-market prices to pay essential costs.

Mugendi said the facility in Mukuuni can store up to 100 bags of grain weighing 90 kg each. Larger silos can hold up to 1,000 bags, he added.

The steel silos protect the food from post-harvest threats, including aflatoxin - a dangerous toxin produced by certain moulds - and pests such as weevils. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose over 20 per cent of their maize to pests and spoilage after harvesting, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

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