Kenya: Upland rice gives hope to small-scale maize farmers

March 24, 2013
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Mr. Timothy Mutobera and other small-scale farmers in western Kenya face three main problems: reduced soil fertility, plant diseases such as maize stalk virus, and too little rain. This trio of problems has worsened poverty and brought food insecurity. Mr. Mutobera says, “I have to buy food from the market as I no longer harvest enough to feed my family.”

Maize is the staple food in Kenya, but Mr. Mutobera wasn’t producing enough of it to feed his children and grandchildren. His main crop is sugar cane, which takes eighteen months to mature. Between cane harvests, he needs to grow food to supplement his family’s diet.

Mr. Mutobera’s life started to change in 2010, when he attended a farmer field day and heard about upland rice. This rice can be grown without flood irrigation, otherwise known as paddy fields.

He was taught how to plant the rice and where to get seeds. So Mr. Mutobera bought a kilogram of a variety called NERICA 11, which he planted as a trial.

To his surprise, the rice did well. He remembers, “Instead of eating the rice, I decided to sell it as seed to my neighbours, who still doubted whether rice could be grown away from wet areas.”

Mr. Mutobera sells a kilogram of rice for seed at $1.15 US. He has become an inspiration to other small-scale farmers in his area. After learning from Mr. Mutobera, seven of his neighbours have begun to grow upland rice. Others will plant it next season.

Like Mr. Mutobera, many local farmers now consider rice as both an alternative staple and a cash crop. But the area’s growing population is a problem. Farmers’ fields are very small, and it is difficult to plant enough rice for the family and have enough left to sell.

But Mr. Mutobera and his fellow farmers are getting support. A local community-based organization called SHIRI Rice Investment has installed a processing machine. The machine removes the husks from rice so that it can be sold to consumers. The organization has also trained farmers how to use other parts of the rice plant. Farmers can now make briquettes from rice husks and hay from rice stalks to feed their livestock.

Mary Nawire is the director of SHIRI Rice Investment. The organization recognizes the potential for local farmers to grow rice to supply the market. Mrs. Nawire thinks the market is large enough to support more rice farmers. She explains: “Western Kenya has a population of about six million people. We are targeting around one million farmers to grow rice so that we can become food secure and increase the household income.”

So far, three processing machines have been installed in different locations. Once local rice production increases, retailers will be able to find enough to supply the market. Local farmers should have a ready market, because the lower costs of local production and distribution will make their rice cheaper.

Nickson Anekea is a farmer in western Kenya who is excited by upland rice and has devoted some land to it. He believes that farmers can no longer rely on maize because the crop gets too many diseases. He says, “This rice is good. We are so much used to eating ugali (Editor’s note: maize porridge), but we should change our attitude.”

Mr. Mutobera says his livelihood will improve by growing upland rice. Like him, other farmers are approaching upland rice as a serious business that will change their fortunes.