Inside Politics

Rising demand for rice creates opportunities for paddy farmers

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020 00:00 |
A man tends to her rice crop. Photo/PD/LEWIS NJOKA

Lewis Njoka @LewisNjoka

Rice farmers across the country are earning good income from the crop, including value addition despite numerous challenges facing the sector. 

An increase in Kenya’s urban population has boosted rice sales and consumption, resulting in increased earnings for farmers, processors and other players in the rice value chain.

Rice is mainly produced by small-scale farmers in Mwea, Bunyala, Ahero, Kano Msambweni and Tana Delta, among other areas, mostly grown under irrigation in paddy schemes.

John Kinyua Muriithi, a rice farmer in Thiba location in Mwea, Kirinyaga county, says the rice sector has improved compared to eight years ago.

This is due to adoption of mechanised agriculture and contract farming, which has given farmers an assured market.

He grows Pishori Basmati, a variety of long-grain rice, which matures in about four months and is famous for its aroma and inviting flavour.

Other varieties grown in the country include Sindano, Basmati 370, Basmat 217 and Thai fragrant rice. 

From one acre when he began growing rice, Muriithi now has a 10-acre farm from which he harvests 35 to 40 bags (100 kilos each) per acre.

Plenty of water

About two months after the first harvest, he goes for second round of harvest (ratoon rice), which gives him about 10 to 15 bags per acre.

A kilo earns him about Sh85 at local mills. He plans to lease more parcels of land to boost production. 

Leasing an acre of land in Mwea irrigation scheme costs about Sh50,000 per season.

Muriithi also pays for other expenses such as land preparation and harvesting which leaves him with about Sh80,000 profit per acre. 

Hiring a combine harvester costs Sh10,000 per acre while scaring away bird services costs him Sh400 daily for about a month. 

“Demand for rice is high, but local production is low, so our produce is fetching good prices of between Sh85 and Sh90 per kilo of processed grains and Sh50 for a kilo of unprocessed ones,”  says Muriithi.

“There used to be a water challenge because of some farmers blocking the rivers upstream, but that has since been solved by the county government of Kirinyaga. We have received enough water since early 2017,” adds Muriithi. 

The National Irrigation Board now manages the water canals within the scheme, charging a monthly fee to the farmers. Other than insufficient water, rice farmers deal with brokers who buy their produce at low prices.

To avoid brokers, many farmers now have an agreement to sell directly to millers. In return, millers provide them with farm inputs and other agricultural support services.

Additionally, local farmers are facing stiff competition from cheap rice imports from Pakistan and Egypt and are affected by poor management of irrigation schemes, which lessen their earnings.

Paddy challenges

Muriithi and his colleagues have adopted new farming methods to increase returns. “We plant rice that is two weeks old,  unlike before when we planted 30-day-old seedlings.  

“We also plant in rows unlike before when we used to broadcast seeds. When it comes to harvesting, we use tractors, and not manually using sickles,” he says.

Another menace is pests and plant diseases. These are controlled by use of selective herbicides, appropriate insecticides, planting healthy seeds, crop rotation, observing field hygiene and biological control methods among others.

Common rice diseases in Kenya include blast, rice yellow mottle virus, bacterial leaf blight, sheath blight, sheath rot and brown leaf spot.  Pests include stem borers, leaf miners, root cutting insects, white rice borer, birds, stalk-eyed fly, rice root knot nematode and rice leafhoppers. 

“The real menace now are large swarms of birds, which invade the farms just before harvest causing massive losses,” he says. 

Muriithi says a large swarm of birds can eat an entire acre of rice in less than 10 minutes.  He advises those who abandoned rice farming to re-join the occupation, saying it is better than urban employment, which most youths prefer. 

Minimise imports 

“If you have many acres, lease out one and use that money as capital to farm the rest of the land. Rice is now a well paying crop, unlike before. It’s now business, not merely peasant farming,” he says.

Caroline Wamalwa Njogu, proprietor of Umoja Rice Millers, Mwea, says although the sector has improved in the recent past, local production ought to be given priority over imports. 

“There is huge business in rice farming and milling. However, imported grains lower the price for our local produce,” says Njogu.

Wamalwa mills over 600 bags of rice a day and has been in the business since 2018 when the mill was set up.

She has agreements with several farmers who supply her with grains as she also assists them adopt good farming practices to produce top quality rice.  

Mwea Irrigation Scheme covers 26,000 acres, and yields about 90,000 tonnes of rice a year. 

It accounts for about 80 per cent of the total rice produced in the country, according to the Kenya Economic Survey 2019. 

The government, through its various agencies, has been working to improve the country’s rice production, which remains low by global standards. Rice is Kenya’s third staple food after maize and wheat.

On average, a Kenyan farmer harvests two tonnes per hectare compared to the global average of 4.5 tonnes per hectare.

Kenya requires about 400,000 tonnes of rice every year meaning that it has to import about 300,000 tonnes, or three times what is produced locally.

Since 2013, the government, in collaboration with the Japanese Development Agency (Jica) has been running a programme called Rice-based and Market-oriented Agriculture Promotion Project (Rice-Mapp). 

The projects aims to boost productivity for farmers by reducing operational costs. The programme involves leveling of farms, use of healthy seedlings, line planting, intermittent irrigation and improved weeding among others modern practices.  

Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) regularly conducts rice stakeholder field visits to train farmers on the benefits of using certified seeds instead of recycling own rice during planting. 

A government agency, Kephis recently made available several hybrid rice varieties, which require fewer kilos to plant in an acre and have a higher yield compared to most conventional seeds.

Other than cooking, you can make rice flour from rice used to make pancakes, noodles, and stews and can be used as an alternative to wheat flour in baking cakes and biscuits.

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