How a farmers' revolt changed a sleepy town

By Kamau Munene | Wednesday, Aug 29th 2018 at 00:25
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Employees at a private rice mill owned by a trader Charles Njiru in Ngurubani town, Mwea packaging the milled product into bags within the facility. [File, Standard]

Ngurubani town in Mwea East sub-county was once a small market that went to sleep before 6pm.

It had more butcheries than shops, thanks to abundant supply of cheap livestock from the neighbouring Mbeere.

In the middle of this, and overlooking the vast rice fields, stood the giant National Irrigation Board (NIB) office block. The board had a tight grip on the town's economy, with all rice harvested from the fields around it delivered to its doorsteps.

Farmers who sneaked some of their harvest home were arrested and detained.

"These were also the days when farmers harvested their crop under strict supervision to ensure all the produce ended up in the NIB stores. The board even dictated how much rice we could take home to feed our families," says 95-year-old Geoffrey Kimani.

Rice consumers, including the farmers themselves, were required to obtain a permit from the District Commissioner in Kerugoya, more than 20km away and then travel to Sagana, another 20km, to buy the commodity from the board's silos.

Rice restrictions

The permit restricted buyers to only one 12kg packet.

Then came MP Alfred Nderitu, a firebrand politician, who sought to loosen the grip that NIB had over the rice farmers.

Between 1998 and 2007, Nderitu led an onslaught against NIB, stirring a revolt by thousands of rice farmers against state control of the Mwea rice scheme

The MP led a campaign to stop farmers from delivering rice to NIB. The board reacted by posting the police in rice fields during harvest to ensure every single grain was delivered to its stores.

The result was a violent confrontation in which a number of farmers lost their lives. They were either shot or got injured in violent clashes between those in support of the board and those against it. Quite a number never recovered from their injuries.

Homes were razed during the clashes.

"My house was set on fire by hired goons because I was opposed to withdrawing from NIB," says Johnson Migwi.

The revolt changed the fortunes of the area. Today, Ngurubani enjoys a 24-hour economy with more than 10 banks and finance institutions, a shopping mall and a booming night life.

The town has since become the capital of rice in the country. There are rice traders everywhere-from the roadside to petrol stations.

Mr Nderitu has since left the scene, but the battle he started still rages behind the scenes.

According to the current MP, Kabinga Wachira the Irrigation Act Cap 347 that NIB used to ride roughshod over the farmers is still in place and the rice fields still belong to the government.

Wachira has managed to push for a repeal of the Act and the matter is currently at the Senate awaiting approval.

“Once we have the Act repealed, farmers will be able to get legal documents for their land they can then use as security to secure loans like other farmers," said the MP.

The MP also wants a new rule that all rice consumed in all government institutions be sourced from the area to boost to the sector.

“Time has come for us to buy what is ours instead of spending billions of shillings through importation of cheap rice at the expense of our farmers,” he said.

This notwithstanding, many changes have taken place at the giant rice scheme, especially in milling of the crop.

Until 20 years ago, there were only three mills, the biggest one owned by the board, a smaller one by the prisons department at Gathigiriri and a third by a Catholic mission hospital.

Major mills

Today, three major mills-The Mwea Rice Mills owned by the government, the Nice Rice Mills owned by a local entrepreneur Charles Njiru Mukombozi and another one set up by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) at Sagana town churn out tonnes of rice every day.

There are more private mills within and outside the scheme, all feeding an estimated Sh13 billion per year rice economy.

Veteran farmers recall the days when they had to obtain a permit from the scheme's manager to have a maximum of five kilogrammes of rice milled. "I still cannot believe the amount of rice on the town's streets today, 1998 was a revolution,” said Kimani. 

But although farmers are happy that they no longer live under the shadows of NIB, they still want it to play a greater role in the rice fields.

"We pay them Sh4,000 per season per acre but there is nothing to show for it," said Morris Mutugi.

The liberalised rice sector has come with its share of challenges, the biggest being diseases and pests. Under NIB, the rice farms were regulatory sprayed. Today, this is not guarantee.

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