Low returns and floods have forced rice farmers in Kano Plains to seek alternative income-generating activities. Rice farmers say they make losses yearly as floods and droughts erode the thousands of shillings that they have invested in the farms.
Most rice farmers have opted to leasing the land to newcomers who go through the same loss-making cycle. Many small-scale farmers are turning to short maturing crops like watermelon, yams and indigenous vegetables to sustain their livelihoods.
Jonam Okok used to grow rice, but says the huge losses forced him to venture into dairy farming which is seen as unsustainable due to the unfavourable weather in Ahero.
“When it rains, you get pools of water all over this place and it gets very cold thus tough for dairy cows as they are susceptible to diseases. Most cows die as a result,” he says.
In 2005, Mr Okok took a Sh200,000 loan and invested in rice on a four acre parcel of land he had rented, but he says he got nothing. He had to repay the loan from his salary.
“It is said that you can make up to Sh400,000 from one acre of rice. Ask me. That is a fallacy,” he says.
In 2007, after doing his own research about dairy farming on the Internet, he bought two heifers from a large scale dairy farmer in Rift Valley for Sh140,000.
Armed with nothing but a strong passion for dairy farming, Mr Okok started experimenting with different rearing techniques he learnt from the Internet and that had worked in countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“I settled on zero-grazing as the weather conditions here are harsh to let the cows roam around especially during the rainy season,” he says.
He says that he was encouraged by the success of dairy farming in predominantly desert countries like Israel despite the tough weather conditions.
While dairy farming is an expensive venture, Mr Okok now counts his gains as other rice farmers stare at losses and continue providing him free animal feeds; the rice straws.
He treats the rice straws with urea fertiliser for protein, mixes with molasses, mineral salts and normal animal salt lick then gives the animals.
The napier grass planted on a section of his farm is only fed to calves and the cows that are milked to increase quantity. He started with two cows and now has 21 that he values at Sh1.2 million. However, the 56-year-old says it has not been easy all the way.
“There is a time I took a Sh100,000 loan and bought a Friesian cow and it died even before calving, but I was not weighed down by that,” says Mr Okok.
The tough weather has since claimed four of his cows prompting him to insure them at a premium of four per cent of the cost of each cow annually.
He estimates the cost of insurance premiums at Sh60,000 annually, a cost he says is negligible considering the high cost of purchasing high breed cows.
Mr Okok milks four cows that produce an average of 50 litres of milk a day, an amount he hopes to double soon. He sells the milk locally at Sh60 a litre which gives him an average of Sh90,000 a month, money he says has enabled him educate his four children.
Milk consumed in Kisumu and its environs is mostly bought from Rift Valley but Mr Okok has managed to get many customers because his milk is considered fresh. He pegs his success on close-monitoring of the animals.
“I am a school accountant and the little time I have has to be dedicated to the animals but I have learnt so much over the Internet that I hardly even deal with veterinary doctors anymore,” says Mr Okok.
Although he has two workers, the school accountant wakes up at 5 am to treat the rice straws and instruct the workers on how the cows are to be fed.
His greatest challenge has been accessing bank loans.
“Is it because we are known only for fish? Because banks get surprised when I say I am in dairy farming,” says Mr Okok.
His goal is to be a model dairy farmer in Kisumu County to demystify the myth that residents of Nyanza can only thrive in fish farming.