Tervil Okoko, PANA Correspondent
NAIROBI, Kenya (PANA) - As Kenya reels under a heavy footing of severe drought and famine due to severe drought, farmers in the flat bed heartland of Mwea, Kirinyaga District, have claimed they have a lot of paddy in the silos lying idle and waiting to be shelled for human consumption.
The estimated 60,000 farmers living on the rice cultivating Mwea Irrigation Scheme, about 93.75 miles North East of Nairobi, feel the government has turned a blind eye on them while their crop is going to waste.
The farmers' first battle was with the National Irrigation Board who had the monopoly to establish and run irrigation schemes in the country.
This was followed by what farmers call a smear campaign to discredit their products, that incensed the Mwea Irrigation Scheme rice farmers who now run the rice production, processing and marketing through their, Mwea Rice Growers Multipurpose society.
In an exclusive interview with PANA, the farmers alleged that the recent appeal by President Daniel Moi for food donations was based on misinformation.
They argued that while it was true the country's food reserves are depleted, their silos, on the expansive plains of Kirinyaga, are overflowing with paddy, food resources that can be distributed to needy cases in the country.
The farmers are currently using homemade mills to process their rice but the machinery cannot cope with the supply of the paddy from the fields.
According to the ministry of agriculture, 2.2 million people, in 32 districts, are currently supposed to be getting relief food. Kenya's current population is estimated at 30 million people.
However, the farmers in Mwea say they cannot mill the paddy for fear that the rice might rot to waste due to lack of bulk buyers. They also dismiss claims that rice is rotting in their stores.
Recent newspaper reports attributed to National Irrigation Board indicated mid June that paddy worth Shs 6.1 billion (about 77.5 million US dollars) was rotting in the MRGM stores.
"How can food rot at a time when there is famine in the country. More so, paddy does not rot because it has a very strong protective shell and there is not known pest that can attack paddy except rats, and MRGM has a herd of cats to take care of the rats," says MRGM agricultural manager, John Nyagah.
"This was blackmail, bad politics that is being touted by NIB to discredit our produce. We took the initiative to take our samples to Kenya Bureau of Sandards for chemical analysis (moisture content, head rice, broken grains, immature grains, streaked grains, purity of variety, foreign matter, paddy grains in milled rice, and aflatoxin level), added MRGM agronomist, Peter Murithi.
"But this has boosted our image and made people know that we have a lot of food here, contrary to belief that there is no food in the country. People have visited here including NGOs, Presbyterian Church, members of a Ethiopian Co-operative Society and other business groups," he added.
A visit to the stores revealed massive stores with high stacks of paddy, and nothing seemed to have been rotting as had been claimed.
Only milled rice can rot due to moisture or exposure to mould, but we are only milling on order, he said.
The Mwea farmers have stacked over 300,000 bags of paddy in their stores waiting to mill them when the demand for the rice is made. But no rice is being bought even after the government issued the food appeal, and the MRGM management blames this on poor food policy and planning by the government.
They also accuse some elements within their society and the irrigation board of having always wanted to politicise the Mwea rice issue.
However, the government says MRGM is to blame for the stalemate. Ann Onyango of Ministry of Agriculture's department of Food Security, says the Mwea farmers rushed things at a time the government is busy trying to review legislation.
She says the legislation will allow the farmers to run their affairs without the government's interference.
However, she adds, there is a lot of politics and the NIB is waiting for the farmers to say what they want to be done with the paddy. She blamed the NIB for the chaos saying the government organ could have initiated dialogue with the farmers instead of opting for a confrontational approach.
"We have to accept that the management of some of the organisations have not been transparent and that is why the farmers are angry, she pointed out hinting at NIB".
However, she was optimistic of a solution to the problem.
Despite the disparaging reports and constant chaos, courtesy of bad politics, the Mwea rice farmers are now managing their own affairs profitably with much benefit going directly to the individual farmers.
They have been having running battles with NIB and the government since 1997 resulting into even deaths and injuries. Since November 1998, the farmers decided not to deliver any crop to NIB stores because the government agency was paying poor prices.
According to Nyagah, the farmers are now in the process of installing a high-powered quality mill that would give them high quality rice for the international market.
He says the mill has already been bought and the installation begins July.
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