Irony of hunger as North Rift farmers stuck with unsold maize

Bags of maize at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) warehouse in Nakuru. March 15, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

As other regions face hunger, farmers in the North Rift are struggling to find a market for surplus produce.

The North Rift region is classified as the country’s grain basket, and every end of season leaves farmers grappling with surplus produce after toiling and contending with high cost of inputs.

The government’s declaration of drought a national disaster clearly means that the State has no food reserves in its strategic stores. This is ironic considering the low prices of maize at Sh2,500 per 90kg bag offered by the government for the last season, which was later revised to Sh2,700.

Most farmers sold their maize to the free market where they fetched better prices compared to that offered by the state.

Yesterday, a reliable source from the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) said the government has no maize reserves in its reserves.

“There are no government stocks. The NCPB has its own commercial maize stocks of 700,000 bags each of 50kg across its depots. The board is selling the stocks to millers and other interested distributors,” said the source who did not wish to be named.

Jackson Kewambai, a farmer from Moiben in Uasin Gishu, said until three days ago, he still had maize in his stores but had to offload them to sort out some domestic needs.

“I sold 20 bags of maize three days ago to get some money to pay fees for my child who was reporting to university. Most families here have maize in their stores for their domestic use and for emergencies like medical and school fees,” said Kwambai.

He added: “The food crisis is the government’s own making. It failed to subsidise fertiliser in the last season and set a producer price of Sh2,500 for a 90kg bag, denying farmers an opportunity to make returns. Farmers in turn sold to middlemen and millers who bought at better prices.”

Ruth Kemboi, the Kenya National Federation of Farmers (KenFF) chairperson Uasin Gishu branch said the region produces substantial quantities of food and it was up to the government to mop it up after harvest so as to to reduce food and nutrition challenges in arid regions.

“Farmers have been left at the mercies of brokers who exploit us,” she noted.

NCPB, Nakuru. March 15, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Further, Kemboi said many farmers in the region still have maize stocks from last season.

“Most farmers released their produce to the market when the government allowed imports from Tanzania recently. They feared prices could dip further. The government should strengthen food reserves by offering better a price of at least Sh3,200 per bag of maize,” said Kemboi.

She further cautioned that the government should ensure there is no excess maize that is imported as this will cause a glut in the next month when the current season is harvested.

But Samuel Yego, Uasin Gishu County Executive for Agriculture blamed most farmers for hoarding their produce and only releasing them when the prices start appreciating.

“Most people wait until June when maize scarcity begins. Unless there are those contracted by millers to stock maize, I don’t think there are substantial maize in farmer’s stores at the moment. Produce from Tanzania has started making their way to the region,” said Yego.

He at the same time urged the government to consider more incentives for farmers including subsidized fertiliser, seeds, affordable fuel, farm machinery and credit facilities to make food production more cost effective.

Kipkorir Menjo, the Kenya Farmers Association (KFA) director, said that lack of marketing strategies had led to a situation where some regions of the country have food in surplus, while other parts suffer acute deficits.

“Although there were adverse weather conditions at the start of the current season, projected maize produce at the end of the season will drop but only slightly. What we have will still be low to meet the country’s needs just like the past years,” Menjo told The Standard.

He added: “We expect a harvest of about four million bags of maize in the current season. But due to weather conditions in between the season, there could be a drop of about five per cent in yields thus achieving 3.8 million bags each of 90kg.”

Menjo said there is a need for good policies that will allow farmers access incentives and improve food production to meet the country’s demand.

“The problem we have currently is that regions that have food in plenty lack a market yet citizens in other regions suffer serious food deficits. Government should provide good structures to ensure farmers get value for their sweat,” he said.

A farmer waiting for his maize to be offloaded at NCPB, Nakuru. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Over the past three planting seasons, the government has neither provided subsidised fertiliser nor procured maize harvests from farmers through the Strategic Food Reserve (SFR) Programme.

“We have been left at the mercy of brokers and middlemen who offer low prices for our maize. We lack an alternative market and only rely on these traders since we need money to pay our children’s school fees, pay medical bills and other financial obligations,” Kimutai Kolum, a farmer from Uasin Gishu County said.

This season produce is expected to drop due to rain failure between April and June.

“I’m not sure if I will get much from my 25 acres under maize this season,” said Sammy Chemweno from Moiben.

Chemweno, who has another 30 acres under wheat, estimates his production may reduce from 25 bags of maize per acre to about 10 or even less.

Thomas Kiptum, a farmer from Soy, said that the climatic conditions might lead to relatively lower yields adding to farmer’s plight of expensive farm inputs and poor market prices.

“We hope that this time, the government will factor in the expenses incurred in acquiring farm inputs to the harvesting process before offering us low market prices that often lead us to huge and irreparable losses,” said Kiptum.

James Rogong’ a farmer from Kipsangui, said the government should ensure that farmers are trained on how to achieve higher yields in order to ensure food security in the country.

“At such a time when drought is a national disaster, farmers should be supported so that enough produce is harvested to help feed the whole country,” said Rogong’.