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June 19, 2008

Disease threatens Kenyan rice crop

The popular basmati rice variety could soon become unaffordable for many Kenyans due to a disease that has been ravaging the crop in Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kirinyaga district.

Farmers in the irrigation scheme, the main producer of this aromatic cereal, locally known as pishori, are watching helplessly as their production diminishes by the day as a result of the fungal disease known as blast.

It is estimated that the disease has so far destroyed up to 14,753 acres of rice crop at the scheme. Some 4,500 farmers who depend on the crop face a bleak future after their crops were wiped out in one of the worst outbreaks at the scheme in recent months.

Mwea is the largest rice growing scheme in East and Central Africa and produces 80 per cent of the rice consumed in Kenya.

“On average, we used to produce 36 bags of rice from one acre, but this has now shrunk to between five and nine bags,” said Joseph Kariuki, unit leader of Thiba section of Unit Six.

The disease is characterized by dark spots on the leaves, which eventually spread to the plant’s stem and constricts it, making it difficult for water to move from the roots.

Due to the diminishing production as a result of the disease, the producer price of 80-kilo bag of pishori rice is ranging between Ksh3,500 ($53.8) and Ksh4,600 ($70.7), up from an average of Ksh2,500 ($38.4). Rice dealers have passed on the cost to consumers and they sell a kilo of rice at Ksh90 ($1.38), up from Ksh70 ($1.08) a few weeks ago.

Areas within the scheme that are most affected are those that specialise in the production of the basmati variety. They include Wamumu, Thiba, Mwea and Karaba. Tebere, whose farmers produce the sindano variety, has not been affected by the disease.

As one walks around the rice fields, the yellowish patches amidst the lush green crop bear stark testimony to the ravages of the disease.

“We hear the disease started in Kano in Western Kenya, but three years ago we started seeing signs here, though we initially thought it was because of the changing weather pattern,” said Mr Kariuki.

The situation has worsened this season with many farmers in unit 16 of Mwea block said to have destroyed part of their crop since they could not harvest.

So serious is the situation that one farmer at H3 block managed to harvest only one and a half bags from one acre. It costs between Ksh35,000 ($538) and Ksh40,000 ($615) to farm one acre of rice.

“Since last year, we have been trying to eliminate the disease using various kinds of chemicals, but the situation seems to worsen and the plants are turning yellowish just before they mature,” a farmer from Unit 16, Moses Mwenje, said.

According to Mr Mwenje, the rice obtained from the unhealthy plant are small and brownish in colour and most millers are declining to mill it as a lot is wasted in the machines.

Many activities in the Mwea paddies have been affected by the presence of the disease, with casual labourers in the rice fields losing their jobs. Rice farming is a labour-intensive venture and Mwea scheme hosts many migrant workers from the surrounding districts of Nyeri, Murang’a, Embu and Mbeere.

“The government should look for a solution to this disease because it is denying us jobs,” said Michael Maina, a casual labourer who specialises in harvesting rice.

Most farmers believe that the disease is as a result of change of planting seasons by the National Irrigation Board, whose main duty at the scheme is to provide water for irrigation, clean canals and build and maintain roads within the rice fields.

“We no longer plant rice according to the season. At first, some farmers thought it was a problem with their land because we had not seen it before. We then realised that this started happening soon after the board started rationing water according to sections,” said Jacinta Wambui who has been worked in the paddies since 1967.

In Mwea, challenges have continued to dog the rice growers after breaking free from the board’s grip in 1983. No sooner had they kicked the board out than the growers realised that they could not manage the complicated irrigation system due to lack of know-how.

A consensus to return the board to the scheme was reached in 2003, with a mandate to undertake maintenance of roads and irrigation system.

Farmers, in turn, would meet the expenses of ploughing of the land and marketing of the commodity.

After the exit of the board from managing the scheme, the acreage under irrigation had increased by 6,000 acres, as farmers outside the scheme had started rice farming. An additional 3,000 acres within the scheme was also converted into rice fields.

A controversial decision by the board since its return to the scheme in 2003 was the introduction of what it termed “staggered cropping” to cope with water shortages.

Under the system, the farmers in different sections plant their crops three months apart. It also banned the farmers from irrigating the land for the second season to allow those who have not planted to do so.

The board is now rationing water by allowing water flow in certain sections for one week before shifting to the next. The board charges farmers Ksh2,000 ($30.7) per acre, which has to be paid up front.

The board is, however, faced with the challenge of distributing water equitably among the farmers. Some areas like Karaba, Kiandegwa and Cubiri have been experiencing serious water problems.

According to S.M Kamundia, one of the board’s managers in Mwea, the entire scheme needs four water reservoirs with a capacity of 40,000 cubic metres to ensure a reliable, constant supply of water to the farmers. Construction of the fourth reservoir is already underway at a cost of Ksh10 million ($153,846).

Due to the planting shift, many farmers like Ms Wambui have found themselves farming off season. According to her, the first two shifts of farmers who plant their rice in August were not as badly affected as the third group, which planted in November-December.

In addition, the Thiba River waters that feed the rice fields of Mwea have been diminishing due to overuse upstream.

This was not happening when the board used to run the scheme.

“Previously, there was only one canal tapping water from the river. But of late they have increased to 46, leaving rice farmers downstream with a shortage,” said Mr Kariuki who managed to harvest 103 bags from four and a half acres.

Although he was expecting more than 130 bags, he thinks he is better off than some of his colleagues whose harvest averaged 10 bags per acre.

“I managed to produce that amount of rice because of the education I underwent at Mwea Irrigation Agriculture Development Centre. According to what we have learnt, you cannot eliminate the disease by chemicals alone. Authorities must find ways of providing enough water to farmers,” Mr Kariuki said.

Raphael Wanjogu, who is in-charge of Mwea Irrigation Agriculture Development Centre, said blast is a fungal disease caused by changes in climate, which have resulted in warm temperatures especially in February and March.

“The disease does not appear in the main rice season. It is the fourth group of farmers that was caught by the disease,” Mr Wanjogu said. The main rice season, which has the best yield, is between July and December.

The research station has proposed the re-organisation of the cropping programme to fit all rice growers into the main season.

The East African

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