At Pap Onditi Shopping Center Nyakach, Kisumu County, 45-year-old Benta Akinyi is carrying a heap of load on her head that looks light in weight.
It looks like unpacked grass for animal feeds but moving closer as Ms Akinyi offloads it with a lot of ease on the wet ground, it is yellowish in colour and convex in shape, slightly larger than the rice grain.
These are rice husks which are the outermost covering layer that protects the grain and is removed during milling, after which the rice is polished.
"This waste is bulky and hence difficult to store. We are given for free by millers to feed our animals but since I have only one cow I prefer to bring it at the shopping centre to sell to farmers who have many animals," states Ms Akinyi
Soon another group of women, arrive at the busy shopping centre carrying a similar load which occupies too much space of their heads and faces.
"It is expensive to transport by boda boda because it is treated as a waste product and we are not sure whether we will get market and therefore prefer to transport by foot," says Ms Juliana Odongo.
They are not alone. Some 20 kilometres away East of Kisumu City at Ahero Township, a youth group is busy loading the husks on a handcart outside one of the rice mills ready to transport to the market.
"We collect this waste and take it to Ahero Township where we sell to farmers for use as beddings for their animals. We're paid peanuts as we sell a tonne at Sh200, but we would rather engage ourselves in this activity than staying idle because as they say an idle mind is a devil's workshop," notes the team leader Martin Ojwang.
In Mwea, Kirinyaga County, farmers allow their animals to feed on straw and husks once they harvest their crop as one way of clearing the waste.
"The sheer volume of rice husk makes it difficult to store and its removal is a big challenge. Burning it only pollutes the air, something I try as much as possible to avoid because I attended a chief Baraza and we were told burning it will affect the rainfall and I don't want to plant rice and rains flop," says Ms Josephine Njeru.
"I don't know how to dispose of the husk waste. I use it to make animal bedding for my two cows by converting them into bales," admits Mr Joel Mwaniki, another farmer in Mwea.
"We have heaps and heaps of husks and face a big challenge on how to dispose of the waste as we are sensitive to the environment. We give the waste for free and tell those collecting it not to burn it if they don't get a good use for it," notes a miller at Ahero Irrigation Scheme.
These are some of the daily nightmares that thousands of rice farmers and millers in Western and Central Kenya go through after clearing the rice fields as they struggle on the best methods to dispose of the increasing tonnage of the husks.
However, it is not all gloom and doom. These tribulations have led to the discovery of several new uses for the once-problematic rice husk and may soon become a source of income and a game-changer in the lives of the struggling rice farmers. It has started attracting many stakeholders and other players in the value addition chain link.
"The husk has unique physical and chemical properties that are not being harnessed in Western, Eastern and Central Kenya regions where rice is grown as a commercial crop. Rice husk is a bulky material. About 20 percent (by volume) of a rice paddy harvest consists of the leftover husks," says Dr Paul Omanga, the Kisumu County Chief Officer for Agriculture.
Annual husks production
Dr Omanga says disposing the husks has traditionally been a challenge for farmers due to long-term expansion programmes for rice production which is expected to grow from 156,000 metric tonnes in 2018 to 1.3million metric tonnes by 2030 according to National Rice Development Strategy-2 (2019-2030).
Rice is increasingly becoming a major staple food in Kenya as the rate of consumption growth is highest at 12 percent annually compared to maize and wheat at two percent placing its significance as an important crop.
The amount of rice husks produced annually in Kenya has been estimated to be 8,500 tonnes while globally about 700 million tonnes are produced each year.
Interestingly, dealing with the overabundance of rice husks has resulted in their emergence as a valuable trade commodity as well as a renewable source of fuel and more.
As output increases, the byproducts of this produce also increase, many requiring environmentally friendly ways of disposal that neither occupies space or cost too much to transport nor pollute the air.
"All agricultural produce is not fully utilised, and some waste byproducts always require utilisation and disposal. Biodegradable products go back into the soil and aid cultivation, and others by-products are being innovatively used to create products that can serve human society in some way or other," said Dr Omanga.
Kirinyaga County which is one of the highest producers of rice in Kenya has launched an ambitious project of converting rice husks into particle boards as an alternative to timber by starting a rice husk factory.
"We want to set up a Rice Husk factory in Kirinyaga which will put more money into the pockets of farmers and other players along the value chain as well as create more job opportunities for the thousands of youth and women and conserve our environment," sys governor Ann Waiguru.
The particle boards which can be used to make furniture and other construction materials are cheaper and denser than plywood and conventional wood.
Kilimo Trust, a non-profit organisation that focuses on agricultural development based on regional trade, food and nutrition has launched a two-year pilot project (2020-2022) dubbed Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Rice Initiative for Climate-Smart Agriculture (R4iCSA) that focuses on introducing regenerative agriculture through sustainable cultivation, inter-cropping with leguminous crops like cowpeas, green grams among others.
The project is funded by the IKEA Foundation of the Netherlands and is implemented by Kilimo Trust in partnership with public and private sector partners and will involve 5,000 smallholder farmers comprising of 3,000 in Eastern Uganda and 2,000 in Kisumu and Busia counties.
Changing the narrative
"Rice husks have many uses and can be processed into bio-fertilisers and added to soil on the recommendation of scientists to improve soil aeration. Husk with its rich reserves of potassium and silicon helps to amend the soil, improve its properties by decreasing soil bulk density, improve its fertility with the air pockets created underground, and works as a rice conditioner," says Anthony Mugambi, Kilimo Trust Country team leader.
"We want to change the narrative that husk waste is a headache to farmers. Rice husk is a sustainable resource, and it's emerging as a value-added material across a variety of applications like fuel and fertiliser. We want the husks to benefit the counties where rice is grown," adds Mr Mugambi who is also the project team leader for the R4Icsa project.
"We want to address issues of climate change through reducing excessive use of water for irrigation, sustainable rice practices, efficient use of water and soil nutrients by reducing on external inputs especially conventional fertiliser which has led to the production of greenhouse gases like methane by teaching farmers how to plant legumes like green grams, cowpeas, soya beans, pigeon peas and chicken peas to fix nitrogen in the soil.
"Rice husks produce different by-products like biochar which is a carbon sink and retains carbon dioxide in soil for many years. It also helps reduce the cutting of trees for cooking fuel. We have partnered with stakeholders along the value chain who will design stoves that use rice husk and this will reduce the cutting of trees for firewood and this will lead to more conservation of the environment," adds Mr Mugambi.
Promote environmental conservation
In Kenya, rice is mainly produced under irrigation by small-scale farmers in counties that include: Kirinyaga, Busia, Tana River, Kwale, Kisumu in Kano plains, Migori, Homa Bay, Siaya, and Taita Taveta.
Rice is also grown under rain-fed conditions in Busia, Bungoma, Kakamega, Kwale, Kilifi, Meru, Isiolo, Migori, Baringo and Murang'a and about 300,000 rice farmers provide labour and also earn their livelihood from the crop.
Alex Odundo, a fabricator from Kisumu is an entrepreneur who is turning waste into wealth by making briquettes.
"We have made a stove that can burn the briquettes which we are promoting for domestic usage in schools and hotels. One of our aims is to try to promote environmental conservation by reducing the use of firewood, and increasing the usage of husk that we normally throw and burn it," he says.
According to Economic Survey for 2019 Kenyans consumed more than one million tonnes of rice from Asian countries worth Sh26billion against the production of fewer than 200 tonnes.