Rice, the country’s second staple food after maize, is wasting away in Kisumu as some families sleep hungry due to food insecurity and inflation that has seen the doubling of prices of essential commodities, including flour.
Ahero Irrigation Scheme, in Kisumu County, is now a beehive of activity, with farmers cutting, stacking and threshing grain from the stalks before drying it for sale.
But despite the farmers celebrating the bumper harvest, their spirit has been dampened because, in yet another year, they lack a ready market and proper storage facilities for the commodity.
The farmers, who work under the supervision of the National Irrigation Board (NIB), get respite from Ugandan buyers who ship the commodity to as far as Kampala and Jinja.
Mr Basil Kizito, a young farmer at the scheme said rice farming is both a financial and labour-intensive activity, yet they sometimes get as little as Sh30 per kilo of paddy rice, making a paltry profit.
“The government has failed to find a market or even regulate the local one for us. Prices fluctuate at a very high rate.
"You could be selling rice at Sh40 per kilo in the morning, by lunch time, you will find it at Sh35,” said Mr Kizito.
When milled, five kilos of paddy rice produce two kilos of ready-to-eat grains.
The aggrieved growers have been reeling from fierce competition coming from cheap but quality imported rice.
The government has licenced importation of rice from Pakistan, Japan, Taiwan and Tanzania and other countgries, to bridge the gap as the country does not produce enough for local consumption.
The country has a demand of more than 450,000 metric tonnes of rice but produces less than 200,000 metric tonnes.
The National Irrigation Board has however been working on means to scale up production from the current 5,000 acres in Ahero and Awach-Kano, Kisumu and add 15,000 acres in Mwea Irrigation scheme and others like Bunyala, in order to meet the demand and therefore stop importation.
Kisumu alone usually produces 25,000 metric tonnes, which the Ministry of Agriculture hopes to scale it to 60,000 metric tonnes.
Mr Benedict Owila, a NIB officer in charge of Ahero Research Station said they have been working on means to reduce the cost of input so that local produce can compete favourably in the market.
In 2015, they introduce a new rice-growing technology known as System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which halves costs while doubling production.
“We introduce the technology in phases. The good produce they have registered this season is partly linked to the SRI which involves using less water, few seeds and other planting procedures in order to maximise yields,” the researcher told Nation in his office.
Ms Juliana Anyona, who has tried the technology said it increased yields from the usual 30 bags per acre to 40.
“We appreciate new technologies by the government to improve our production. But we are asking for a better market,” said Ms Anyona.
Nearby the drying sections at the NIB offices are trucks hired by Ugandans to fetch the crop which now costs Sh43 per kilo.
A Ugandan buyer said Tanzanian rice is of better quality, but accessibility to Kenya is convenient in terms of transport cost and border procedures, unlike Tanzania which restricts rice export and their market full of conmen.
Mr John Odongo, NIB Assistant Research Officer said Ahero farmers cannot plant the highly demanded aromatic rice because it is not suitable in the the highly nutritious soils.
Majority plant the long grain non-aromatic famously known as Sindano and other hybrid varieties.
“During its flowering season, you find that the aromatic rice begins lodging. This is because the nutrients makes the stalk heavier than the stem can support. Lodging causes reduced grain quality and loss of aroma,” said Mr Odongo.
Whereas the Sindano variety is not fast moving in the market, most farmers are forced to individually store the produce for long in anticipation of better prices later on.
But to avoid poor storage, others fall victims to middlemen who offer to buy their produce at very low cost and wait for the price to shoot.
Mr Edmond Omondi, a farmer, said he would accept to sell to the exploitative middlemen since he needs quick money to re-invest as the next season begins.
“We are being exploited by middlemen. But since most farmers don’t have an alternative way of getting capital for the next season, they dispose the rice at an incredibly low cost that leaves them with no profit,” he said.
Mr Tobias Otieno, an official of Kola Obura farmers’ group said the Ahero rice is no longer a favourite to the locals.
“Ours have since been replaced by Basmati rice from the Middle East which is considered of better quality as it does not stick together after cooking like the paddy rice from Ahero,” he said.
The farmers criticised the National Cereals and Produce Board for failing to buy their crop.
“The cereals board prefers stocking the aromatic types like Basmati but not Sindano. Why then can’t NIB allow us to plant other crops with which we are assured of the market instead of limiting us to rice farming?” posed Mr Otieno.