Local rice farmers are increasingly adopting a non-traditional method of planting that involves the use of little water to irrigate farms.
National Irrigation Board (NIB) officials said the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), introduced in the country at Mwea Irrigation Scheme four years ago, was finding traction in other rice growing areas.
Researchers at NIB, the African Institute for Capacity Development (AICAD), and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) say the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) have endorsed the new method after studies showed the conventional method of growing rice in flooded paddies wastes water and results in poor yields.
Dr Raphael Wanjogu, the principal research officer at Mwea Irrigation Agricultural Development Centre (Miad), said the SRI method offers farmers an opportunity to improve food security through increased rice production, higher incomes, water saving as well as reduction of the national rice import bill. Kenya spends more than Sh7 billion on importing 200,000 metric tonnes of rice every year.
The country produces 110,000 metric tonnes of the crop annually but consumption stands at 300,000 metric tonnes, resulting in a deficit of about 200,000 metric tonnes.
Kenya has the lowest import tariff on rice in East Africa standing at 35 per cent, while Uganda and Tanzania charge 75 per cent. This, said Dr Wanjogu, hurts the industry. Countries such as India, he said, have increased rice production through improved methods of farming.
The solution to food insecurity, he said, lies in producing more rice.
“The new method,’’ said Dr Wanjogu, “makes use of assets already available to rice farmers.”
He said that more farmers were adopting the SRI technique to increase yields. Most of Kenya’s rice is grown in irrigation schemes established by the government.
These include Mwea, Bura, Hola, Perkera, West Kano, Bunyala, and Ahero. Smaller quantities of the crop are grown along river valleys. Eighty per cent of Kenya’s rice is grown under flooding.
A farmer who resorts to the new technique can harvest 50 per cent more rice than one who uses the conventional method which yields about 25 bags per acre.
Further, a farmer who turns to the SRI technique uses 25 to 50 per cent less water, Dr Wanjogu said. Moreover, SRI saves on inputs requiring only 25 per cent of seed used in the conventional method as well as less fertiliser.
The new method has been found suitable to nearly all rice varieties, but some respond better than others. To achieve high yields, a farmer should use wider spacing.
This enables plants to get more sunlight, air and nutrients allowing faster growth of roots and producing stronger stalks and more grains.
Farmers are also advised to keep soils moist as opposed to continuously flooding fields.
“This enables the soil to hold air and allow roots to grow more profusely due to the presence of more oxygen in the soil, leading to effective nutrient uptake, healthier plants and better grains,” said Dr Wanjogu.
The SRI initiative, said Mr Cyrus Mbogo, a water officer at the National Irrigation Board, had led to intensified scientific research on rice, farmer trials and capacity building as well as outreach activities involving over 3,500 farmers.
“Farmers pick up new methods even before they are released by researchers,” he said.
And when milled, SRI rice has better grain quality, stronger aroma, and sells faster. Mr Mbogo said that the SRI method saves up to 30 per cent of water.
Following the encouraging results, NIB has supported expansion of the method to five irrigation schemes including Mwea, Ahero, Bunyala, West Kano and South West Kano.