Farmers in Nyanza’s largest rice farming belt, Ahero and West Kano irrigation schemes, are abandoning the crop in their numbers due to a myriad of challenges the government seems to have turned a blind eye to.
Investigations and interviews with various stakeholders revealed that farmers are increasingly leasing out their paddies after failed efforts to earn a living from the crop.
Interestingly, rice is said to be overtaking maize as the staple food, buoyed by declining production and a good share of challenges facing the former, as well as changing lifestyle, especially of the middle class.
A survey by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development shows rural households consuming maize flour declined to 78 per cent in 2015, from 86 per cent in 2013 while households consuming rice increased from 54 to 61 per cent in the same period.
These promising numbers were reflected in the two schemes where production has steadily risen, with 15,000 acres brought under rice production from about 8,000 acres 10 years ago.
The bright prospects paint a picture of a rosy situation where there is an apparent lure to rice production and farmers toiling in the paddies smile all the way to the bank at the end of a season.
But on the ground, the farmers are a bitter lot.
Floods and hailstorm
From a rising cost of production to lack of extension officers, grain-destroying birds and floods and hailstorm, farmers weather great odds.
“The cost of production increases every year. Inputs like fertilisers and weed and pest control measures are rising and the government is not keen on taming this,” said George Okaka, the chairman of West Kano Irrigation Scheme.
And if they surmount the costs to cultivate the grain, they still face the grain-destroying red-billed quelea birds, heavy floods and hailstorm at harvest.
And these are compounded by poor uptake of crop insurance, draining hopes of ever-breaking even with the crop.
“We also no longer get extension officers to advise us on good practice and when to harvest.
“The consequence is that farmers gauge for themselves when to harvest and in many cases do so either too soon or too late and this affects quality of the rice milled,” said Okaka, explaining why the local produce has remained unable to compete with imports flooding in.
He said mistimed harvesting left farmers with grain with the wrong moisture content, hence reduced rice quality.
Although Ugandan traders have been raiding the two schemes to mop up the produce at rates slightly higher than what is offered by local millers, farmers have decried production costs, which thin their margins, pushing them into poverty at a time when they should be getting richer.
Control the birds
Okaka said the birds menace was getting worse since devolution of agriculture because the Kisumu County government has failed to control the birds’ population as was done under the centralised government.
“The county should concede that it lacks the capacity to control the birds so that the national government can come to our rescue. It is really disheartening to lose ready grain to pests when there is a body that should shield farmers against that,” he said.
“We cannot worry about floods and hailstorm which we cannot control and still worry about birds whose mitigation has existed for years.”
For long, lack of a proper mill has also stood in the way of proper production in Nyanza but this was mitigated when the Lake Basin Development Authority revived its 24,000 tonne capacity mill in Kibos and received Sh200 million to mop up rice from farmers in the two schemes.
The farmers are also working towards operationalisation of their own mill, which has been lying idle due to an incomplete set up, according to Okaka. This, he said, will eliminate middlemen, expanding their margins.
Rice farming in Ahero received a major boost in 2015 when the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) bought a Sh200 million subsidised mechanisation equipment for the farmers.
The rise has also been buoyed by the shift from better harvest to reliable market, courtesy of a new technology dubbed system for rice intensification (SRI).
The system, borrowed from Mwea Irrigation Scheme, involves intensive utilisation of water, where farmers have equal access to the limited commodity for a particular number of days, then they give it to other farmers, and the cycle continues.
The system also promotes mechanisation, use of certified seeds and intensive sensitisation. This has seen the likes of Beatrice Awino, a farmer, embrace team work right from land preparation, planting, harvesting and marketing.
Nyanza NIB Regional Manager Joel Tanui however asked the rice farmers to insure their crops so they can be compensated in the event of crop failure caused largely by natural calamities such as hailstorms and the birds.
“We are asking farmers to embrace the idea of insuring their crops as is being promoted by the government, so that in the event of calamities, they are compensated,” Tanui said.
He said some rice farmers fear the insurance premiums could be a costly undertaking. He said insurance cover would cost between Sh2,000 and Sh4,000, depending on acreage and estimated production output.