The Agriculture ministry has adopted a three-pronged strategy to double rice production in Mwea Irrigation Scheme which provides 80 per cent of the grain consumed in Kenya.
It has come up with new rice varieties, new seed varieties that are resilient to climate change, and strives to change farming systems.
The ministry, in partnership with Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and South Korea, has introduced machinery in rice production unlike in the past when farmers depended mainly on manual labour.
At the same time the partners are constructing the Sh19 billion Thiba Dam to expand the scheme.
The new rice varieties will not only address the issue of higher production, but also food security, poverty alleviation and greatly benefit livestock farmers.
The government aims to double rice production before 2018.
John Kimani, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) Mwea Director, said they have realised the need to meet demand for livestock feeds too.
“The crop-livestock interface has turned out to be a very vital aspect for us and now we are looking at all possible ways to see each sector supports the other,” he said.
Dr Kimani said the varieties that they are developing have the ‘‘stay-green trait’’ (the leaves and stems remain green and palatable to animals and are of high protein content).
“We have been able to get germplasm from our development partners, especially from South Korea, which had developed dual purpose rice.
‘‘This is a type of rice that meets demand for both the grain for human consumption and culms for livestock,” he said.
However, this new rice species are yet to be named since they are still in the breeding process and will only be named after being approved and released to farmers for planting.
After harvest farmers preserve rice straws as hay which is normally fed to their livestock during dry spells.
Jackline Wangeci, a rice farmer at the scheme, confirmed that after harvest she packs straws into bales as hay for her three dairy cows and sells the rest at Sh250 each to other dairy farmers.
“We can’t wait to plant this new variety since we will double our harvest as well as earnings,” she noted.
The new variety, according to Dr Kimani, is a high yielder of animal fodder and will help double yields when released to farmers in six years to come.
Currently, he said, they are carrying out tests and will only release the variety when their partner, South Korea, gives them the green-light.
‘‘We cannot release it without their authority, we will be slapped with harsh penalties,’’ he added. The rice research project was launched in 2013 and is expected to yield results by May 2018. After conducting an analysis in 2008 on food crops that are consumed in the country, they realised that rice was the third most important cereal and its consumption was growing fast.
Rice consumption in the country is growing at a rate of 12 per cent annually compared with four per cent for wheat and one per cent for maize.
This compelled the government to embark on raising rice production.
The changing eating habit is mostly among the younger generation, Dr Kimani said.
Kenya produces 149,000 tonnes of rice per year while consumption stands at 540,000 tonnes.
According to Dr Kimani, also a rice breeder, the country is forced to import 70 per cent of rice to meet demand.
It is in this regard that Kalro is developing more rice varieties that are resilient to climate change and have higher yields.
“We are trying to develop varieties that can perform better than what farmers have in a bid to close the demand gap through bilateral projects with rice growing countries,” he said.
Through research conducted in May 2013 Kalro found major constraints to rice farming. Poor seeds topped the list.
Others were the need for drought resistant and water saving varieties, the need to deal with diseases especially Blast, need for cold weather resistant varieties and those that thrive in low soil fertility and salinity.
Bibiana Walela, the Assistant Director Rice Promotion at Kalro Mwea, said that farmers used to exchange seeds since there were no certified varieties and procurement structures in place. However, Kalro and partners have reversed this trend, she said.
This has led to increased rice production, up to three tonnes per hectare. They target to increase this to seven tonnes, she said. “In Japan the average is seven tonnes of milled rice per hectare while in Kenya it is 2.4 tonnes. We are working out to raise production in country through our partnership,” she said.
To this end, Ms Walela said, Kalro was undertaking three projects. These include the New Rice for Africa (Nerica) programme, which researches on the upland rain-fed varieties in semi-arid lands of Kenya.
The country has potential of farming one million hectares in the upland ecology and 540,000 hectares under irrigation and can expand production to 1.3 hectares with use of underground water, she said.
“We are working on exploiting these potentials and if we get enough resources we should be able to produce enough rice for this country,” Ms Walela said.
At the same time, she said, Kalro was addressing the challenge of mechanising rice production on a smaller scale by introducing hand-driven machinery to farmers through field days.
Through Japan based firm Toyota Tuso, Ms Walela said, they were testing two tractor models for use in the entire country.
‘‘If they adapt to local conditions we will order for more and sell to farmers at a subsidised price,’’ she said.
With 40 million people, an annual population growth rate of 2.7 per cent and recent rainfall deficits threatening food security, Kenya should engage in crop diversification with focus on staples such as rice.
“Such enhanced production could play a key role in ensuring that food production gaps are sealed, improving overall national food security,” Ms Walela said. The 80,000-hectare Mwea Irrigation Scheme used to be a haven for diseases, according to Dr Kimani.
It was not until 2007 that Blast was discovered in the region, a disease he said was devastating rice farming. The other challenges are cold brought about by climate change.
“Rice is a very unique plant which requires a lot of sunlight. If temperatures go down below 17 degrees Celsius, especially at night and more so during pollen formation, the pollen becomes sterile. We are developing varieties that are cold resilient to address climate change,” he said.
Mwea farmers are unable to plant two crops per year because of the cold season in June-July.
With enough water from Thiba dam, Kalro is looking at how the crop can be grown twice per year to increase yields.
Kalro officials said the organisation had developed a water-saving rice variety.
“When we started the water supply project it was overtaken because so many outgrowers were utilising the same water and therefore they didn’t have enough, forcing farmers to grow rice in phases,” said Dr Kimani.
Because of overdependence on rice farming, soils fertility has declined.
This has compelled Kalro to come up with rice varieties which do well in poor soils.
Already, said Dr Kimani, Kalro has started distributing the varieties to farmers.
‘‘Although we still have a lot of challenges to address, which we are working on together with stakeholders, we want to make sure that this country is self-sufficient in rice production,’’ concluded Dr Kimani.