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March 12, 2008

Kenyan farmers increasingly abandon staple crops over viability concerns

An increasing number of food crop farmers in Uasin Gishu District are abandoning farming in favour of small scale businesses and horticulture.

They are running away from their age old activity, dropping staples like maize and wheat in preference for faster growing vegetables and passion fruits. The move is likely to threaten food security in the region.

The shift is informed by relatively low returns from traditional farming due to high cost of inputs and delays in payment from marketing bodies like the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). Farmers hope to reap higher profits by engaging in small scale trades such as vending while growing vegetables and fruits.

“I have incurred losses for the past 10 years in cultivating maize on my seven-acre farm. I could have put the investment of Sh300,000 into better use to improve the welfare of my family,” says Mr Willy Kigen.

He is now contemplating switching to growing cabbages, spinach and carrots. Farming of fruits is attracting a major shift partly due to ready markets overseas and related high returns.

Farming of fresh produce has also gained momentum due to the introduction of cold storage facilities at Eldoret International Airport.

The real threat to food security, however, lies in some farmers who are abandoning farming activities altogether to pursue other small scale businesses to vend various merchandise and services in local towns.

For the first 20 years of Independence, wheat and maize farming was lucrative business, which supported thousands of households. However, in recent times, the sector has been going through tough times, thus forcing farmers to think of alternative means of eking out a living.

The liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s flooded the local market with cheap imports, depriving local farmers of crucial markets. They ended up selling their produce at throw-away prices thus incurring massive losses.

“Every planting season comes with a steep increase in costs of inputs and production, which invariably wipes away the little profit made the season before,” said Mr Kipkorir Matelong.

Owing to the post-election violence that rocked the country a month ago, this year is forecast to be the hardest in recent times for farmers in the North Rift. Land preparation is far behind schedule and the long-rains season is expected in a month.

In addition, the high cost of diesel and limited availability of tractors has tremendously increased the cost of land preparation. Due to sharp increase in global oil prices and shortages at home brought about by the post-election violence, the price of diesel has climbed up from Sh77.29 to Sh82.24.

Farmers are now calling on the government to intervene and bring down the prices of oil in the country. Interruptions in supply of fertiliser has seen a bag of Double Ammonium Phosphate rise by 40 per cent from Sh2,500 to Sh3, 500.

A Rapid Food Security Assessment Report on a survey conducted last month by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group and Agricultural Livestock Sectoral Working Group, indicated the cost of production and inputs in Uasin Gishu have risen from Sh12,150 to Sh18,150 per hectare; a massive 49 per cent increase from last year.

However, this figure excludes miscellaneous expenses such as costs of weeding, transportation, harvesting and shelling, which have risen in response to wage demands from farmhands.

“The current situation benefits the large scale farmers because they have their own implements and can easily access loans,” says Richard Kosgei.

The frustration of small scale farmers puts a sharp focus on the future of food security in the North Rift region and the country as a whole since it will eventually lead to reduction in the area under cereal and pulse production.

Uasin Gishu and neighbouring Trans Nzoia District are regarded as the bread baskets of the country. Jointly, they account for 17 per cent of maize production in the country.

Last year, Uasin Gishu also produced some 3.7 million bags of wheat.

Although the government has given some respite to farmers by buying their produce at better prices, meaningful profitability is yet to be realised.

Currently the NCPB is buying a 90kg bag of maize at Sh1,200 and that of wheat at Sh1,700. This is a tremendous increase from the Sh400 and Sh800 at which they were being bought in 2002.

Besides erratic weather and financial constraints, bad farming practices such as burning the land, failure to control soil erosion and poor husbandry are other factors hindering farmers from reaping maximum yields from their farms.

When well prepared and under ideal climatic conditions, an acre of land can yield a maximum of 35 bags of maize and 20 bags of wheat. But on most occasions, the farmers reap about 20 bags of maize and 10-15 of wheat per acre.

Business Daily Africa

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