Baringo County has for long been a pastoralist region with residents mainly rearing livestock as their major economic mainstay. This is largely because the area gets inadequate rainfall given its semi-arid climate.
However irrigation has radically changed the face of the county so much that even with high temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius on average this February, there are fields of green crops, which are almost ready for harvesting.
One of the owners of these farms is Stephen Sunguna’s whose life has changed since he swapped livestock keeping for crops. His transformation mirrors the lives of other thousands of farmers who have now been empowered economically because of Perrkera Irrigation Scheme.
“Today, my life has changed because of this irrigation scheme. I can grow a number of crops anytime of the year without having to worry about rain, which is a rare commodity here,” said Mr Sunguna, who together with other farmers, have been contracted by the giant companies to grow seeds.
In 1996, farmers in the scheme started planting seed maize crop under the agreement with the seed firms and it became a turning point for crop production in Baringo.
Last year farmers planted 2,200 acres of seed maize for the Kenya Seed and Monsanto companies on contract, at a price of Sh66 per kilo. The yields were high and farmers delivered a total of 2,652 tonnes of seed maize to the two seed firms.
This production earned growers Sh175 million which has been paid to them through the cooperative societies they are affiliated.
For them, the contract ensures that they have a ready market for their crop after harvesting, and they are spared the agony of looking for market.
Apart from sorghum, Mr Sunguna also grows watermelon, sunflower and maize with availability of water at the scheme ensuring that he harvests for two seasons annually.
The farmer earns Sh45 for every kilo of sorghum that he sells to Kitale-based Kenya Seed Company. He makes about Sh150,000 every season from his three-acre farm.
The proceeds from the farm has enabled him to take his children to school and meet other domestic needs for his family.
Sunflower farmers contracted by the Kenya Seed earn Sh300 per kilo of the grain, making it one of the most lucrative crops at the irrigation scheme.
Baringo is among the counties that are in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), meaning that the region is not conducive for crop farming without irrigation. The area receives an annual average rainfall of 630mm.
Perrkera is managed by the National irrigation Board (NIB) which controls the usage of water at the scheme. The agency also ensures that the residents get water for domestic use, saving them long journeys.
Mr Enos Wafula, the scheme manager, says the scheme has a total acreage of 5,800 acres but only 2,500 is used for farming.
Mr Wafula pointed out that contractual farming by the Kenya Seed and water availability has ensured that farmers have income all year round.
But just like any other region adversely affected by drought, Perrkera Irrigation Scheme also suffers the impact of low water in dry seasons.
“The water levels have currently dropped to a low of one milimetre per second from the usual six because of the dry weather that we are experiencing now,” said Mr Wafula.
“Maximum and minimum temperatures average at 36 degrees Celsius and 16 degrees Celsius, the scheme has high evaporation rates of up to 6mm and low percentage relative humidity,” he added.
The first crop of onions was planted at the scheme in 1956 on 1,400 acres out of the total surveyed irrigation scheme area of 5,800 acres, using furrow system of irrigation.
Farmers started by growing horticultural crops and the scheme became a major source of bulb onions, dried chilies and watermelons.
To date, the scheme remains a major source of revenue in the larger Baringo County, which is now diversifying from livestock.