The woes facing rice farmers once again point to the paradox that has underpinned Kenya’s agricultural policy since Independence.
The country has to import two thirds of its annual rice requirements yet the available domestic production is also being smuggled across the border because of underperforming State-owned millers.
A Ugandan miller, for instance, pays Sh38 per kilogramme compared to Sh33 offered by local millers. The foreign buyers, unlike State millers, do not force farmers to dry their rice up to 13 percent moisture content or to winnow their cereals.
The result is that the State-owned rice millers are mostly idle with the Auditor-General’s report tabled in Parliament last week indicating that the 3.5 metric tonnes-per-hour Western Kenya Rice Mills is technically insolvent.
The Lake Victoria region rice belt, which has a total installed milling capacity of about 20 metric tonnes per hour (public and private mills put together) is being underutilised. The same fate applies to other public rice millers across the country as well. Every rice scheme creates its own micro economy that suffers whenever the project falters.
The advent of devolution has seen agriculture moved to counties but farmers are yet to start receiving inputs such as seeds, chemicals and fertiliser that the State used to provide years back.
At Ahero Rice Scheme which started more than three decades ago with a yield rate of 45 bags of paddy per acre is, for instance, latest report indicates a production rate of 12 to 16 bags per acre “because of the high cost of production.” For avoidance of doubt, rice is an important national staple food, the third most consumed in Kenya after maize and wheat, according to Food and Agricultural Organisation data. Kenya produces about 120,000 metric tonnes of the commodity and imports 360,000 tonnes to meet the national consumption rate of 480,000 metric tonnes every year.
That means the government cannot achieve the level of food security envisaged under the five-year “Big Four Agenda” if counties do not pay adequate attention to rice production.
To achieve food security and sufficiency, counties must not only modernise milling machines and hire field extension workers but also organise farmers in co-operatives to address challenges such as cost inputs and opportunities for marketing.