I grew up in the Kano plains. I swam to school because of floods during rainy seasons. I learned the art of balancing my books on my back as I swam across the floods that stood between me and my dream for education. We went to school bare feet, and if you arrived late, you would find Mr. Micah Dola waiting with a cane to embrace your wet legs with. The bruises would then hurriedly morph to wounds which would take a while to heal. The result would be bruised legs that deny you a chance to wear shorts proudly.
I worked at our rice farm. It was a routine during planting seasons. Our hope of kicking gripping poverty out of our home was hinged on it. Year after year, season after season; we held on to hope. That with one more season, the humiliation of poverty and lack that we had been accustomed to would come to an end. But it never did. Instead, like a quicksand, the rice venture dragged us deeper and deeper into the miry clay of poverty.
I nurtured a passionate hate for farming. Specifically rice farming. Because in my immediate surrounding, it did little to change lives. In fact, the floods that signaled the start of the rice plantation season caused more havoc and pain than the hope it brought. I saw mothers sell everything they owned to invest in the rice business. I saw fathers sell the cows they received as dowry to invest in rice farming. And all they reaped was a disappointment.
My age mates quit school to make quick bucks from rice farming. No sooner had they plunged into rice farming than they realized that the business was more of a quicksand of hopelessness than a solid rock of hope.
The confusion threw them off balance. The only way to console them was to develop a tight friendship with the bottle. But since the properly packaged alcohol was expensive, chang’aa became the closest substitute. In fact, they called it a friend who sticks closer than farming. Bhang was invited in and added into the temporary relief alcohol had been unfaithfully giving. Marriage presented a false array of hope and soon a young lady was brought in simba as a wife. The frustration that was reaped from the harsh ground was meted on the wife without mercy. Many women became punching bags for their frustrated husbands.
Realizing that there was no way marriage could solve the problem, promiscuity soon joined the marital bed and HIV/AIDS became the villain in this story. A child was born in the rushed marriage that was meant to quench the pain of frustration. Before they turned 10, they were orphaned. With no able relatives to provide for them, they picked the baton that their parents had left for them and they continued to run on the tracks of poverty against a rat race whose results had long been determined. Ever since, pain became a close friend. Life to them became a cocktail of frustrations and pain.
Over 20 years later, the frustration of rice farmers is growing at an alarming rate. While technology has evolved and life has improved, farmers from Kano irrigation scheme are yet to see the benefits of their hard work. Farmers pour their sweat every season in a bid to improve their lives but they reap the same frustrations that gripped their grandfathers 40 years ago. What is ailing the rice farming in this region?
First, the National Irrigation Board (NIB) which was established and incorporated in 1966 as a state corporation through the Irrigation Act, Cap 347 of the Laws of Kenya is only mandated to take care of national irrigation schemes. What that means is this, while their neighbors in West Kano and Ahero irrigation scheme have a government machinery backing their trade, the smallholder farmers and independent irrigation schemes can only dream about that.
But the major Achilles heels that have incapacitated these farmers is the issue of the market. A chat with the farmers reveals a sore thumb that no one is willing to address. The farmers plant a very non-competitive rice in the market and they don’t do any value addition e.g. branding, packaging, processing and distribution. That exposes them to middlewomen who are exploitative.
These middle women who determine the price of their own produce do not hail from a different county. These are their neighbors and friends from the neighboring shopping centers. But because of lack of any competitive advantage, the farmers have no option but to sell their produce. Because they have no stores and their rice can rot in the field, so the middle women take advantage of their desperation to milk them dry
While the small scale rice holders are not utilizing the potential of the land to the maximum because of planting rice only in one season, the following statistics remind us just how much the scheme plus other smallholder schemes are sleeping giants:
According to the National Cereals and Produce Board, the National rice demand stands at 300,000 tones per year while the National rice production trails the demand at 80,000 tones per year. Kenya spends a whooping Shs 7 billion to import rice to meet the national deficit. Annual consumption of rice is increasing at 12% compared to wheat at 4% and maize at 1%.
The scheme has a capacity to greatly reduce food insecurity in this nation and around the region. With over 4500 hectares of land, this region can literally transform food security as we know it. What is required is simply value addition and plantation of a superior rice brand.
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. My prayer is that the recommendations will be implemented. That they will not be mere brilliant concepts on paper.
All the greatest innovations in the world that have changed how we live came from a place of need. The discovery of penicillin by the Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928 helped the medicine world in dealing with bacteria. The Wright brother kick started the aviation industry. Martin Luther King Junior did not have to wait for the race situation to change without his intervention.
Somebody must pay the ultimate price. I want to urge the government, (both county and national) to intervene in this scheme. It is possible to reduce the rice deficit which we have as a nation by empowering these farmers. Food security can also be guaranteed by exploiting the potential of this region.
Dannish Odongo works for Capital FM as a digital media strategist. He runs a blog on leadership and faith dannish.co.ke.
Follow him @Dannishodongo