Farmers in central Kenya are shifting from maize farming to other crops due to the high cost of production and market unreliability.
Most farmers are now opting to grow bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes while the area under maize crop has been declining since 2011.
According to cereals farming advisory officer Wallace Wambua, the region no longer relies on its own maize production to meet its consumption needs.
“Full maize production potential for the region is 15 million bags but currently we are doing on average 150,000 bags per season. Banana production has shot from 10 tonnes in 2011 to the current 120 tonnes. Cassava production has increased to 15 tonnes from six tonnes in 2011 whereas sweet potatoes rose to 30 tonnes from 10 tonnes in 2011,” he told the Business Daily.
He says farmers are “disillusioned with maize production”.
Mr Wambua says based on farmers’ feedback, cost of producing maize on has increased from an average of Sh20,000 to Sh35,000 per acre in the past five years.
“They say land tilling charges, furrowing, seed costs and fertiliser have been going up steadily over the period. They also argue that market
opportunities for maize have been dwindling,” he says.
Mr Wambua added that farmers are unable to benefit from government subsidised seed and fertiliser.
“Most of them cite corruption as a hindrance to access and one of the key factors that have led to the collapse of the programme.”
He says low maize pricing has made it impossible for farmers to earn a decent livelihood and that most have been incurring huge losses.
The lowest market price is Sh3,000 a 90-kg bag of maize, translating to Sh33 per kilogramme.
Mr Wambua says an acre of maize in the region under favourable weather conditions produces a maximum of 15 bags, translating to a gross income of Sh45,000 if delivered to the Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) at Sh3,000 per bag.
“Transport to the NCPB depots consumes the little profit margin, reducing the maize farmer to servitude,” he says.
Mr Wambua adds that the influx of middlemen during harvest season further distorts the market prices.
“The brokers buy off farmers’ maize using a three-kilogramme container.
“Their version of a bag of maize weighs 120kg. Their price immediately after harvest is Sh40 per three kilos of maize, meaning that they offer Sh13 per kilo of maize at the farm gate,” he says.
“Coupled with erratic weather regimes as well as an outbreak of maize diseases, the farmers have every reason to abandon maize farming.”
On the other hand, a kilogramme of cassava is bought at Sh10.
“An acre of land can produce 20,000 kilos of cassava, translating to an income of Sh200,000 per harvest.
“The only difference is that cassava matures in two years. However, from maize in two years is nowhere near that income performance,” he says.
Mr Wambua says cassava given that drought resistant, it requires no fertiliser and buyers find the farmer on the farm, not at the market, eliminating transport costs.
He says a kilogramme of bananas goes for between Sh13-Sh18 whereas that of sweet potatoes is Sh30.
Murang’a Agriculture Executive Albert Mwaniki terms cultivation of other crops “agricultural democracy” and says farmers are free to pursue what best rewards them.
“It is in that light that my department has been giving out potato vines and cassava stems to farmers at no cost. We are also issuing tissue culture bananas to our farmers.
“They have been very precise that they are not interested in maize farming. As the duty bearer, their county government is responding to their needs by supporting them to pursue agricultural practices of their choice,” he says.
Murang’a County government has commenced distribution of a million cassava seedlings to locals in a drive to cushion them from vagaries of drought.
The drive targets 200,000 small-scale farmers who will get 50 cuttings each.
Mr Mwaniki, the Agriculture Executive, says there is a need to diversify crop production due to unpredictable rainfall over the past three years.
He says the Ebwana Tereka variety that Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation recently introduced was high yielding — estimated at 17 tubers a tree with a maturity period of between six and 12 months.
Mr Mwaniki says the 17 tubers under optimal production can weigh 30kg hence the 50 plants could produce 1,500kg.
He says the variety sets the stage for establishing a cottage industry.
“The variety is ideal for nutritional matters as well as business. It is immune to cassava mosaic disease as well as the cassava brown streak,” he said.
Mr Mwaniki said the county has set aside a budget for the project and expects the first harvest in August.
“With proper husbandry, this variety can be harvested for over two years hence prolonging earning period for farmers as well as guaranteeing them a fallback nutritional saviour in times of failed harvests in other crops,” he says.
Mr Mwaniki says maize production is becoming costly hence the need to diversify.
“Maize production is erratic and cannot be relied on to meet the consumption demand in the county and post a surplus for trade.
“Farming is not about consuming the harvest, rather, it is also about empowering farmers to earn,” he says.
Mr Mwaniki says a kilogramme of cassava goes for Sh10 at the farm gate and Sh25 in the markets.
“This means farmers in producer groups of 10 members with at least 10,000kg of harvests have the ability to make Sh100,000 and as high as Sh250,000. It is a cost-effective venture since cassava needs no fertilisers, manure and pesticides.
“You just plant and forget only to remember harvest time,” he says.
Mr Mwaniki says cassava does not take up large space of land since it can be planted on the edges of a farm boundary.
“With time, we will venture into value-addition in which the farmers can be making flour, crisps and animal feed using cassava as the raw material,” he says.
The situation raises queries on the benefits of the Sh5.5 billion government set aside to subsidise maize production.
Agriculture officer in charge of grain preservation Ngare Nyagah said: “We are currently utilising the budget. We have procured maize seed and fertiliser at a cost of Sh3 billion, a move expressly tailored to
ease competition in the East African Community bloc.”
He says Kenyan farmers face unfair competition in the region even after the EAC partners — Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi — signed pacts to ease regional trade.
Mr Nyagah says the new scheme seeks to replace an earlier subsidy plan suspended in 2009.
Promoting farmers, he says, would boost productivity, cut post-harvest losses and give them a competitive edge in the EAC.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture 2017 data, maize production has been marginal at about two percent annually.
This is lower than the population growth rate, which stands at about three percent.
Domestic maize production needs to grow at a rate of four percent for Kenya to be food secure.
Last year, maize production stood at 2.4 million metric tonnes against a national requirement of 3.1 million metric tonnes. Imports from the EAC and other countries bridge the deficit.
Maize is a staple food crop for 96 percent of the Kenyan population with 125kg per capita consumption.
Small-scale farmers produce 80 percent of the total grain output.
With Kenya’s population projected to hit 43.1 million by 2020, the demand for maize is estimated to reach five million metric tonnes.
According to Agriculture Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, local maize farmers face difficulties in accessing low-cost inputs.
This has seen Kenyan farmers perform poorly in pricing compared to their Tanzania and Uganda counterparts whose grain prices are lower than locally produced maize.
“This is the scenario that we want to mitigate where we are recouping the labour of the Kenyan farmer by introducing interventions that will mitigate what he is losing on other production fronts,” said Mr Kiunjuri.
He said Tanzania leads the region in agricultural subsidies with its farmers enjoying a direct 20 percent government subsidy.