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August 22, 2009

Drought causes massive crop failure in Kenya's grain belt

Two months before harvest time, the maize in Kenya’s Rift Valley should be tall, lush and green, bursting with life. Instead, crops in the province’s Lare division are stunted, barren fields of parched browns and pallid yellows.

The area, local farmers say, has experienced three years of erratic rainfall. This year, however, has been “a nightmare”, Samuel Karanja said in mid-August at his farm in Njururi village. “I do not expect to harvest anything, yet I used a lot of money to prepare my land and plant maize and beans earlier this year,” the 70-year-old farmer said.

Karanja planted maize and beans on 3.2ha, at a cost of at least KSh80,000 (US$1,052), but the beans have since withered and died while the maize is stunted and drying.

“I have left everything to God; I am hoping the short rains [September-December] will come but I am exploring alternatives to maize, together with other farmers and we want to plant cassava when the rains come.”

Like Karanja, hundreds of farmers in the area, which lies in the new district of Njoro, have been hit hard by drought. Across the province – considered the country’s grain basket – agricultural officials are reporting significant crop failure.
The larger Nakuru area, comprising Njoro, Nakuru North, Naivasha, Molo, Rongai and Olengurone districts, are hardest-hit.

“Overall, we expect at least 95 percent maize crop failure across the larger Nakuru areas; only areas such as Weseges in Nakuru North may see some maize harvests,” said Stephen Muriithi, the Nakuru district agricultural officer.

Karanja said the situation was so bad they could not even cut the stunted maize plants to feed cows as the animals died after eating the rotten roots. “I turned to livestock keeping, but I am spending KSh200 [$2.60] every day to buy hay for three cows,” he explained. “This is an expense I can hardly afford as I was totally reliant on crop farming.”

Because of poor rainfall in 2008 and 2009, water pans dug by farmers in Lare have dried up, hampering efforts to grow subsistence crops such as sweet potatoes, peanuts and various vegetables.

“When the rains come we will only plant maize enough for the family’s needs and instead focus on tree seedling planting because it is much more profitable and does not need a lot of rainwater,” said Mary Waithera, another farmer in Lare.

Muriithi said his department was hoping the short rains would boost production of crops such as potatoes and beans. These would, in turn, sustain the farmers until 2010 when they would prepare for the main planting season before the long rains.


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