LARE, 29 October 2010 (IRIN) - After poor harvests due to erratic rains that culminated in a drought in early 2009, most maize farmers in Kenya are enjoying better times due to enhanced March-May long rains. However, they are struggling to offload a surplus harvest of the key staple amid fears that short October to December rains could lead to heavy post-harvest losses.
The long rains maize harvest accounts for more than 80 percent of national output.
“We are not complaining about food security now as we have enough; production has been staggered because of the rains since November 2009. We have not had a distinct season, farmers are harvesting and planting simultaneously,” Muthoni Kirui, the Njoro district agricultural officer (DAO), told IRIN.
“Whatever stocks we have, we are estimating they can last us for a year but farmers will sell off about 50 percent of their produce.”
Njoro is in Kenya’s “grain basket” region of Rift Valley.
The sale of surplus maize to meet other needs is a problem. In the Lare Division of Njoro, for instance, a 90kg bag of maize is selling at only KSh700 (about US$9). “The farmers are not breaking even but selling at a loss,” she said.
“After the selling spree, the same food will come back for sale at a higher price,” Kirui noted, adding that middle men are to blame.
According to farmer Bernard Maina, this is inevitable, especially for farmers without alternative income.
“Even if we are told that education is free, there are other school expenses. The teachers may have been lenient with us during the 2009 drought but now they will make us pay; they will say now you have maize to sell,” said Maina.
“We are putting a lot of emphasis on our children’s education now since farming has become a vicious cycle. After every five years there is a big drought for two years. If my children cannot study they will just end up like me.”
Lare experienced total crop failure in 2009. To cope, farmers were forced to seek casual jobs in exchange for food in the neighbouring divisions of Mauche and Mau Narok. “Some women abandoned their husbands as there was no harvest, not even fodder for the cows. What kind of life is that?” asked Maina.
The good harvests in 2010 have brought with them other challenges for Maina - proper harvesting and storage.
With the farmers reliant on the sun for maize drying, there are fears of inadequate drying, which could predispose the produce to aflatoxin contamination and other losses due to ongoing rains.
“There is a need for cheaper drying technologies because it is now raining most afternoons,” said DAO Kirui. “We are training them on preservation as they are bringing in rotten samples of maize.”
Most farmers have been forced to leave their ready maize crop un-harvested or harvested but stacked in the fields.
“Prospects for enhanced rainfall in the western sector of the country, including the ‘grain basket’, may disrupt or even delay harvesting of long rains maize. As a result, increased pre- and post-harvest losses may occur, somewhat compromising national output. Nevertheless, beneficial effects of enhanced rains in the western areas could be substantial as long as the rains are not excessive,” noted the Kenya Food Security Outlook for October to March 2011.
La Niña conditions are expected to have the converse effect in most of the rest of the country. This, warns the outlook, could increase food insecurity over the period for urban households, because of high food prices.
To help farmers with surplus produce take advantage of the expected higher prices, the government has introduced a storage programme, whereby receipts issued for the maize enable farmers to access micro-loans.
However, most farmers have been slow in embracing it. The cost of the monthly storage fee, cost of transport and access is a problem.
Maina, for example, told IRIN he would not be storing his expected harvest of about 100 90kg bags of maize at the warehouses. “I will keep it in the house as that is my bank. If I need some money, I can easily take out a bag of maize and sell it and keep the rest until prices improve,” he said.
Another farmer, Joseph Kuria, has invested in a greenhouse for tomato production. He is also harvesting water and diversifying his crops. “Maize farming is not good for us. Before maize matures, it takes six months compared to faster-growing potatoes and cabbage. What you get when you sell maize compared to the growing period is not beneficial for farmers.”
The reluctance to adopt other drought-tolerant crops persists, Lare agriculture extension officer, James Mwangi, said. “Generally, people still want to produce maize irrespective of market availability and weather suitability. On any farm opening up new land they will plant maize and beans.”