For the past five months, Vitalis Okuta has been making countless trips from his home in Ombeyi to Western Kenya Rice Mills, three kilometres away at National Irrigation Authority in Ahero.
He makes the trips to find out whether the government plans to buy tonnes of rice farmers like him have at the mills storage facilities.
But last week, Okuta and some 600 farmers were shocked to receive news that the government said its stores were full and it could not buy more rice from farmers.
Ahero Irrigation Scheme had only supplied Sh12 million worth of rice, out of the Sh70 million worth of harvest farmers got last year. Okuta is now a worried man. From his four-acre parcel within Bloc D of the scheme, he harvested about six tonnes of paddy which he had milled to supply to the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC).
“We had hoped the corporation would buy all our rice, but this new communication has left us worried and confused,” he said.
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His biggest worry is now the influx of middlemen who have thronged the area to take advantage of the situation.
“Unscrupulous traders are conning farmers and buying their produce at low prices.
“Some farmers are giving in as they need to pay school fees for their children and sort other bills,” Okuta said.
Fredrick Athembo is equally concerned at the state of affairs. His rice at Bloc K is at the drying yard since July last year.
According to Athembo, farmers in the same bloc are expected to begin planting for the next season, but lack of market for the previous harvests has stalled the process.
“Out of the 70 acres in our bloc, 20 are not ready for planting.
“By now there should be crops in the entire field, but many farmers are in a tight spot,” he said.
Emmanuel Juma, the chairman of the farmers in the scheme said at least 600 tonnes of paddy is at the scheme’s stores in Ahero, and risk rotting due to the increased moisture content.
“Usually when we harvest in July, by the end of August, farmers have disposed of all their produce and are preparing for the next planting season. This is not the case this season,” he said.
Juma revealed that middlemen are taking advantage of the farmers’ predicament to offer low prices.
He said the KNTC had set Sh45 as the price per kilo of paddy.
“But with the corporation now shutting its doors, the middlemen have raided the area to buy rice at throwaway prices.
Juma said some traders from Migori County and Uganda have been visiting the area and purchasing paddy at between Sh30 and Sh35 per kilo.
“If something is not done in time, farmers are likely to lose everything,” he said.
Joel Tanui, the manager for Western Kenya National Irrigation Authority, said Ahero Irrigation Scheme alone is holding rice worth Sh50 million.
He said the harvest has improved since the government assured the farmers of a ready market.
“We are expanding the schemes and more farmers are coming on board, which means more production,” he said.
Paul Omanga, the Kisumu County chief officer for agriculture, admitted that marketing is a big challenge for most farmers.
“As a county government, our key role is to promote agriculture.
“Marketing is not our duty, but I will engage relevant stakeholders to try and find a lasting solution,” he said.
KNTC top leadership is expected to tour Ahero to meet farmers and other stakeholders to chart the way forward.