Rice farmers are abandoning huge tracts of land in the Lower-Kuja irrigation scheme, threatening the survival of the three-year Sh5.4 billion national government project that was commissioned by ODM leader Raila Odinga in May 2019.
Kevin Omondi, who has 10-acres in the scheme, said that despite harvesting 200 bags during the last season, he had not been able to find a buyer for his paddy in the last six months.
Paddy is rice whose husk has not been removed.
“Having your land tilled and the rice planted and maintained to the point of harvesting is quite costly. We are not seeing anything good after all the toil,” said Mr Omondi, who quit fishing to venture into rice farming.
Farmers who mill their rice are also faced with the challenge of cheaper imports from Tanzania.
Martha Aketch said she took her paddy for milling in Nyatike and set a price of Sh130 per kilo to recoup her expenses and make a profit. But many customers prefer Tanzania rice which sells for Sh100 a kilogramme.
The majority of farmers at the scheme plant a variety called IR (International Rice) that is supposed to be bought by the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC) on the orders of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
But since January, the agency has not collected the rice for sale across the country.
KNTC Principal Business Development Officer Anthony Nalianya wrote to farmers on January 6 saying, “The corporation is acknowledging your efforts as far as the presidential directive is concerned. However, due to limited storage at our warehouse occasioned by huge stocking and slow off-take, we are unable to take in more bags at the moment.”
Mercy of brokers
Some farmers have found themselves at the mercy of brokers who buy a kilo of rice for as low as Sh30. Only those who can take their produce as far as Kisumu are still working on their farms.
Cleophas Achar, a resident of Nyatike who farms on one acre, said he bought Basmati rice seeds from Mwea but had to sell the rice himself because KNTC only buys the IR variety. Mr Achar said he sold 10 bags for Sh90,000.
Scheme chairman Samson Oremo said there is infrastructure that is yet to be completed hence the farming problems.
According to Mr Oremo, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya promised them a ready market for their produce as well as a milling plant.
He also called for the strengthening of the Lower Kuja Co-operative Society to enable it buy rice from farmers and give them loans to buy inputs.
“One has to go to the National Irrigation Authority offices in Mwea and Ahero to get the seeds, which are a bit expensive,” he said.
Scheme manager Kennedy Ouma said efforts were underway to make improvements that would see all the 3,000 acres being actively used by farmers.
He admitted that farmers were facing marketing challenges and were stuck with tonnes of rice in their homes, while others had suffered losses after their crop was struck by diseases.
“Farmers were getting losses due to disease build-up in the blocks but we are now trying to encourage rotational farming where in one season the farmer can plant rice in one block and move to the next in another season,” said Ouma.
He added that while concerns have been raised about Tanzanian rice flooding the market, they were encouraging the farmers to choose the right varieties and engage in better agronomic practices to get higher yields and be competitive.
“We are also working with local investors to set up rice mills and do branding of the rice so that they can take advantage of the market around,” he said.