AHERO, 29 July 2011 (IRIN) - The Kano plains, in Kenya's western Nyanza Province, are well known for rice production, but after years of poor prices and competition from imports, farmers are gradually switching to more profitable crops such as maize.
"I am happy because when you look at my maize farm, you can see my family can forget hunger for the next year," said Jack Osoro, who grew rice for more than 20 years before making the switch to maize. "The harvests will be good and I can eat and sell some to pay school fees for my children."
He added: "As years passed and the government neglected rice farmers, we became poorer than even those who didn't till their farms because it was expensive to buy farm inputs and we lost everything to rich middlemen."
At her two hectare farm, Emily Ominde is harvesting millet; she has already harvested 28 fifty kilogramme bags of maize. Ominde still grows rice, but has increased her income by growing other crops during non-rice planting months.
"You can't plant rice throughout the season, so I decided instead of leaving my farm idle, I would plant maize and millet on it as I waited for another rice planting season," she said. "By the time I finish harvesting my maize and millet, I will have about 40 bags of both and now I can keep half to feed my family and sell the rest to cater for other needs."
Competition from importers
Kenya imports three-quarters of its rice from Asian countries such as Pakistan under preferential tax terms; rice imports from these countries incur a 35 percent tax, compared with 75 percent levied on other agricultural imports.
In June 2011, the Kenyan Finance Minister extended the special tax relief on rice imports from Pakistan and Egypt to 2012.
"The cost of production of local rice is high, thus, automatically, it becomes expensive, and people would rather pick foreign rice from Asian countries which enjoy tax relief and are hence cheaper," said Auma Osolo, a lecturer at the department of agriculture at western Kenya's Maseno University. "When people don't buy your product, the incentive to produce more disappears."
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, local production of rice stands at 50,000MT per year, while annual consumption is 350,000MT. Pakistan alone exports 200,000MT of rice to Kenya annually.
The potential of maize
According to Osoro, who heads a local farmers' cooperative, more than three-quarters of the 519 farmers involved in the region's Ahero Irrigation Scheme - originally mainly farming rice - have switched to maize. The scheme covers 874ha, which, according to Ministry of Agriculture officials, can generate enough maize to feed about 250,000 people.
"Rice failed to cushion us from hunger, but today when you look at what we expect to get from maize farming, we can say, if we continue, then hunger will be history for us, and not only here, but feed other parts of the country too."
According to senior government officials in Nyanza, the farmers can, if they use modern methods including fertilizers, irrigation and certified seeds, produce an average of 70,000 bags of maize each harvesting season.
"When you have such a large number of farmers using modern agricultural production methods like irrigation and use of fertilizers, then you expect each farmer to produce an average of 30 bags of maize per acre [0.4ha]... from this calculation, what these farmers produce is enough to feed their families and immediate neighbours through the sale of some of this produce until the next harvesting season," said Joash Owiro, the Nyanza Provincial Director of Agriculture.
"Our problem as a country has been over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture, but farmers in such irrigation schemes have an advantage because they have water year-round and can equally produce throughout the year and not only maize and rice... many other crops," he said.
By forming cooperatives, the farmers in Kano have been able to negotiate lower rates for inputs such as seeds and fertilizers.
James Ratemo, a government agricultural extension officer, moves from farm to farm on a rickety motorcycle, teaching farmers how best to preserve their produce; he says without improving their knowledge, they may not put their good harvests to optimal use.
"When farmers get good harvests like this, excitement sets in and many of them end up selling all the produce and they are left with nothing to eat," he said.
For farmers, there has never been a better time to sell maize: the price of a 90kg bag has gone up from KSh1,300 (US$14.40) in January to KSh4,500 ($50) in July.
But the farmers say the government could do even better by removing the tax-free status of maize; the farmers argue that if those incentives were used to encourage local farmers to grow more maize, the national staple, the country could rely more on local production at a reasonable cost.
"What the government needs to do now is to provide incentives in terms of good prices for farmers like those in Kano who have received good harvest and buy the crop to give to those in need and use that to also beef up the strategic grain reserves," said Osolo.
"Measures must also be put in place by, for example, putting a cap on how many bags a farmer can sell so that they don't sell everything and remain hungry and in the process, sustain the cycle of hunger," he said.
The government is also dissuading farmers from sub-dividing land into tiny parcels, which mean much smaller profits after harvest season.
"As certain areas continue to realize good harvests, the government will use that to cushion those areas that have been adversely affected by drought," said Wilson Songa, agriculture secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture.