Rice variety, market conspire against Kano irrigation farmers

February 16, 2016
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The cost of hiring the excavators to remove the silt adds to the cost of doing business for the already hard-pressed farmers.

It’s hard to hold on to hope when it’s dripping pace is slower than the movement of a chameleon. But that’s what the farmers of South West Kano irrigation scheme in Kisumu County have been accustomed to.

The vicious cycle of poverty that has been their close friend can partly be attributed to a source of livelihood that has never managed to change the unfortunate narrative.

Farmers who have been planting rice in this scheme have nothing to smile about. Instead, middlemen, an undependable source of water, pests, lack of market, inferior crop of rice among other challenges have confined them to a life of servitude.

Over the last 20 years, since the scheme was opened, the small holder farmers in South West Kano have seen their already meager earnings dwindle further, with few opting to explore other alternatives. Their plight is compounded, by the fact that the farmers are not under the National Irrigation Board (NIB).

The state corporation, through the Irrigation Act, is the only body mandated to take care of national irrigation schemes. What that means is this; while neighbors in West Kano and Ahero irrigation schemes have government machinery backing their trade, the small holder farmers in South West Irrigation scheme and other independent irrigation schemes can only dream about that.

Though the 3000-acre independent irrigation scheme is large enough to compete favorably with other schemes, the inconsistent pattern of farming only adds to the complexities farmers in this region face.

“Right now we are about to harvest, can you imagine that the next time we are going to plant again is next year? Even if you stored your entire produce, will it last till then?” poses Hesbon Onyango, a local farmer in the scheme.

Elisha Nyamwaya, chairman of the South West Kano Irrigation Scheme
Elisha Nyamwaya, the chairman of the South West Kano Irrigation Scheme

The challenge of water is more of a historical issue. When the scheme was opened, it was made up of less than 3,000 acres of land. However, when other land owners noticed the benefit of the scheme, they joined. This resulted to critical water stress.

“We managed to get Japan International Cooperation (JICA) to help us construct a second culvert that can increase water into the scheme. We succeeded and the issue of sufficient water is now almost history, what we urgently need are excavators to unclog the drainage system,” lamented Elisha Nyamwaya, the chairman of the scheme.

While the small scale rice holders are not utilizing the potential of the land to the maximum, the following statistics remind us just how much the scheme is a sleeping giant:

According to the National Cereals and Produce Board, the national rice demand in Kenya stands at 300,000 tonnes per year while the national rice production trails the demand at 80,000 tones per year. The country spends Sh7B to import rice to meet the national deficit. Meanwhile, annual consumption of rice is increasing at 12% compared to wheat at 4% and maize at 1%.

Among the myriad of challenges that have been forwarded to explain the low yield of rice in this scheme, one particularly stands out. The IR variety of rice, though easier to plant and manage, is not as marketable in Kenya.

“We plant IR because that is what we have access to. The aromatic seeds are not here. But even that, it is much harder to take care of aromatic rice in the fields. Birds love them more and it is expensive to maintain but its yields are good,” explained Elisha Nyamwaya, who is one of the founders of the scheme.

The farmers also believe that support from the National Irrigation Board can go a long way in alleviating the challenges they face. A quick assessment of section 15 of the Irrigation Act which is currently under review offers a glimpse of hope for the farmers. The review gives provision for designation of the national irrigation schemes and vesting of land as the mandate of the minister. It states as follows: The Minister may, by notice in the Gazette, designate any area of land to be a national irrigation scheme.

This means that the schemes which were not yet in existence when the board was formed can now join the high table by being given the National Irrigation title by a notice from the minister.

The dependence on gravity for irrigation from the Nyando River presents a unique challenge for the farmers. The high level of silt persistently blocks the drainage system, starving the land from the much-needed water.

The cost of hiring the excavators to remove the silt adds to the cost of doing business for the already hard-pressed farmers.

“We do not have the machinery here to help us unclog the drainage system which is usually chocked by silt. And when we get the machines, they are either too late or are too expensive to achieve its objectives,” lamented Elisha Nyamwaya.

One unique aspect of this irrigation scheme is that the intermediaries who buy the rice from the farmers are mostly women, unlike in most farming sectors where men dominate. However, this does not stop farmers in the irrigation scheme to accuse the middle women of exploitative tendencies just like their male counterparts.

“The middle women from Ahero are the ones who buys our produce. Because they know that we have no stores and our rice can rot in the field, they take advantage of our desperation to milk us dry,” explained Mr. Elisha Nyamwaya.

The farmers in this region now cling to hope. Yet, as they say, hope is never a strategy.

The county government of Kisumu has constituted a rice task force to revive the fortunes of the dwindling industry. They have finished their study and they have made several recommendations.

“Rice farmers ought to diversify and fully utilize the land available to them. To that end, we are proposing the introduction of horticulture crops and sorghum which have been proven to do well here,” said Dr. Omanga who is the chairman of the task force.

Dr. Omanga, Chairman of the Kisumu County Rice task force
Dr. Omanga, Chairman of the Kisumu County Rice task force

Our curiosity drove us to ask the tough question. Could it be that this is all mere talk and the time has come for the farmers to ditch the unproductive venture?

“Last year we were speaking but now we are hitting the road running. The next phase of plantations will see a change. Come and do your story in the next 8 months,” added the confident chairman of the task force.

As the sun was setting literally in Lake Victoria, our hope is that a new dawn of the plantation cycle will bring with it renewed mindsets, a new crop, a better market and a revolving fund for these farmers.

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