Ms Rhoda Kalunda, a peasant farmer from Katulani in Kitui County owns a 20-acre farm on which she has practised mixed crop farming most of her adult life.
The last season was her first major break from perennial poverty, when she was supplied with certified green gram seeds and pesticides by the county government of Kitui and got a bumper harvest.
Ms Kalunda was among beneficiaries of a programme launched by the county in conjunction with the Kenya Red Cross, which supported farmers with subsidised seeds and other farm inputs to grow green grams for overseas markets.
Dubbed the ‘Ndengu Revolution’, the programme to tap into the lucrative ready market was meant to transform farmers’ lives in Kitui, Makueni, Machakos, Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties by eliminating brokers and enhancing prices.
Long used to being exploited by unscrupulous brokers during harvest time, farmers in the four counties had staked their hopes on the project.
The bumper green gram harvest realised by Ms Kalunda and millions of small scale farmers in Lower and Upper Eastern regions has brought challenges that no one, including the government was prepared for.
Each of the four counties was hoping to earn at least Sh4 billion from the venture, banking on a promise made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government would buy the entire crop produced in Kenya.
The Indian leader made the promise to President Uhuru Kenyatta during his state visit to Kenya last year, triggering a series of initiatives to assist farmers access the lucrative market and shield them from exploitation by middle men.
According to Kenya Red Cross Secretary General Abass Gullet, the agency set aside Sh500 million in each county to buy all the produce and offered and to help export it.
The counties were banking on the understanding that demand for Kenyan green grams in Asian and Middle East countries, including India, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, among others, was inexhaustible and that farmers were assured of a ready market.
They hoped the green grams could be the cash crop for arid areas just as coffee and tea are to Central Kenya or sugar to Western Kenya, as they planned to provide linkages with better paying international markets.
However, the Indian Government banned importation of green grams — known as ndengu, or pojo in Kiswahili — because its farmers had had a bumper harvest, effectively killing the dreams of millions of Kenyan farmers.
Over the years, the Kenyan ndengu has ended up in the Asian markets, with farmers earning at least Sh80 a kilo. This season, however, prices have fallen to as low as Sh40 a kilo.
In Ukambani, this is the first time in many years that farmers are dealing with a glut — bumper harvest with no market, which has disrupted local and foreign markets, and caused a significant drop in prices.
Officials from the four counties and agricultural experts are now grappling with how to deal with the glut to cushion farmers from possible losses and prevent the crop from going to waste.
“We are trying to arrest the situation, which seems to be moving from being a green gram celebration towards a green gram crisis in Kenya,” said Dr Romano Kiome, chief of party for the USAid-funded Kenya Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) Program.
Dr Kiome, a former permanent secretary for Agriculture, who convened a meeting of stakeholders this week to discuss the crisis, says the devolved units should be supported to deal with their efforts to increase production of green gram for the past two seasons.
“Against a total storage capacity of only 7,000 tonnes, we already have 92,500 tonnes harvested so far. The total harvest is expected to hit around 110,000 tonnes against a domestic consumption capacity of 103,000 tonnes,” said Dr Kiome.
He said even without the import ban, domestic prices in India had fallen to as low as Sh58, making it unattractive to local farmers.
According to Dr Moses Siambi, regional director of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (Icrisat) in charge of Eastern and Southern Africa, the ndengu glut was normal and stakeholders should work together to provide solutions to farmers. Icrisat and USAid are some of the sponsors of the project.
“Market prices the world over are determined by forces of supply and demand. With the targeted consumer nation also producing, the prices were certainly bound to fall, but that shouldn’t be the end of the road,” Dr Siambi told the meeting held at World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi.
Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu said she was encouraged by the good harvests because it proved that it was possible for people to produce enough food for themselves and a surplus for income.
The governor said she was lobbying for national policy to incorporate green grams in government food purchases in public institutions and relief food.
Mrs Ngilu said she would rally the Council of Governors to present a memorandum to the World Food Programme to include green grams on the famine relief list, which currently consists of just maize, rice and beans.
She also said she had spoken to President Uhuru Kenyatta regarding the bumper crop and expressed hope in the government’s support for the farmers’ bid to profitably sell their produce.
Prof Karwitha Kiugu, the Agriculture executive in Meru lamented that the harvest was in danger of being attacked by weevils and going to waste, while his Tharaka Nithi counterpart, Mr Jasper Mkenya, rooted for the establishment of bulking and collection centres like the ones handling tea or coffee.