Is Ukraine war reviving wheat growing in Kenya?

Wheat ready for harvest. [File, Standard]

A drive from Gilgil to Nyahururu is punctuated by golden wheat on a few large shambas and many small ones.

At a small town called Kasuku, about 20km from Nyahururu, combine harvesters are parked, waiting to harvest the ripening wheat. 

I have used this route often but not seen so much wheat planted. I know something about this region - beyond Al Capone’s bodyguard, Davo Davidson, making Happy Valley his home. 

In the colonial period and even after uhuru, large wheat farms dotted this part of white highlands. A view from eastern escarpments on the Aberdares was breathtaking; farms resembled the US or Canadian prairies, with planes spraying. 

In the 1980s, the planes went quiet as the plains were settled. The large farms were sold and subdivided; that is what happened to all the farms in this region and other parts of the mostly British settlers’ farms.

Paradoxically, Britain never subdivided her farms; a drive through the British countryside leaves no doubt. The size of the settlers’ farms and houses in Kenya indicate they wanted to replicate their model in Kenya. Mau Mau did them in. 

But what did this subdivision of land do to food security and production?

Having grown up on a farm, I could see how we shifted from mechanised farming to hoes. Tractors have joined white rhino as one of the endangered species as small holdings become too small to use tractors. 

Someone argued that farm production went up after uhuru, all the small shambas added together did better than big farms. But that food was shared by more people as population went up.

Fast forward to today. We can’t grow enough wheat in Kenya, yet the population has gone up.  Why is the wheat coming back where it was once the king?

Price gone up

There are several reasons. One is the Ukraine war - the price of wheat has gone up and this has served as a catalyst to grow more wheat. We love money. This is the missing link in our food security. If farmers are assured of profits, they would grow more and more food.

In most countries, farmers as subsidised to keep growing key food crops. Should we extend subsidies to other inputs in food production beyond fertiliser? Most countries subsidise farmers. Which leader wants to rule over a hungry and angry nation?

The second reason is climatic change. Beyond wheat I noted beans are growing in this once very cold region. Farmers told me it’s warmer now.  And rain patterns have changed. The last time my dad tried wheat on five acres of land, it was all lost to rain. 

Third is that farmers are becoming more pragmatic. Wheat and beans have a shorter growing season compared to, say, maize.

One question that rolled through my mind is what support these farmers will get to keep growing wheat. Beyond the profits and diet improvement, can wheat be made mainstream again?  Bread eaters will celebrate with lower prices. Ever tried ‘wheat githeri’?

Since agriculture is devolved, what incentive are county governments giving farmers to grow new crops or revive old crops? Would have loved to hear from the county officials in this region.

One of the causes of food insecurity in Kenya is growing the wrong crops. Traditions matter more than science seems to matter in farming. In the ‘new prairies, maize takes almost a year to nurture.  Wheat takes a much shorter time.

If each region concentrates on the crop it is good at, we can trade. Good roads facilitate that trade and improve food security.  You should type your GPS on a Ministry of Agriculture or county website and get an output on the best crop for the place and possible profits. Farming can be modernised and made cool.

Enhance food security

What have we not been growing and can grow in Kenya? Once I grew and harvested grapes near Nairobi, I noted the opportunities we have not exploited in Kenya. Very soon you will buy XN Pinotage, XN Merlot and Riesling. Stay tuned.

With scenic views of the Aberdares to the west, the golden wheat was a sight to behold just after sunrise.

The beauty is not just physical, it radiated into the economy.  It gives the farmer alternative crops, enhancing food security and national pride. To the new or renewed wheat farmers in the white highlands, keep up the good work. I have no doubt our Christmas chapatis are guaranteed.