Nelly Bassily | March 17, 2008
Willy Kigen says that maize cultivation has become a losing business. He grows his grain on a seven-acre farm in Uasin Gishu District, one of Kenya’s most fertile areas. But his investments and hard work have not been paying off. Next year, he may plant his fields with cabbage, spinach, and carrots instead.
Many other Kenyan farmers are making the same choice – shifting production from staple grains to more profitable crops such as fruits and vegetables.
Uasin Gishu District and neighbouring Trans Nzoia District are regarded as Kenya’s breadbaskets. Together, they produce about one-sixth of the country’s maize. The area is also an important wheat producer. However, in Uasin Gishu District, eight per cent less land is being used to grow maize this year, as compared to last year. The situation is raising concerns about food security.
Grace Kiru is one of the district’s agricultural extension officers. She predicts that there will be a deficit of 600,000 bags of maize in the area this year.
Many factors are pushing Kenyan farmers away from traditional staples and towards niche crops. The rising cost of diesel and the limited availability of tractors have greatly increased the cost of preparing land. According to a Rapid Food Security Assessment Report conducted by the Kenyan government last month, these and other factors have contributed to the cost of grain production rising by almost 50 per cent in Uasin Gishu over the last year.
At the same time, maize prices have been highly volatile, leaving farmers unable to predict a return for their labour. Last year, maize farmers from Uasin Gishu threatened to stop delivering grain to the National Cereals and Produce Board until they received back pay.
Farmers are also enticed by the ready market for faster-growing fruits and vegetables, especially in Europe. A new cold storage facility at Eldoret International Airport has made shipping fresh produce to Europe even easier.
Recent post-election violence raised many concerns over food security this year. Some crops were burned, and others were planted late because many farmers were forced to temporarily abandon their land. But, over the longer term, the difficulty in making a profit from grain may pose a greater threat to food security than these types of conflicts.
Some farmers are deciding to give up farming altogether, finding they can earn a better living by starting a small business to serve one of the local towns.
For his part, Mr. Kigen hopes that vegetable farming will be a better investment of his time and money, and allow him to better provide for his family.