Improving yields key to boosting rice farmers' livelihoods

After spending Ksh35,000 (US$437) on his 0.4 hectare rice plantation - preparing the land, paying for water, transplanting the rice and hiring casual labour - Vincent Opiyo hopes to make Ksh65,000 ($812) when he sells the rice, which takes about three months to mature.

"I expect to harvest 25 bags [50kg each] from this [land] but I know I could get more if I were to improve the yield," Opiyo, 49, father of eight, told IRIN at the Ahero Rice Irrigation Scheme in Nyanza province.

In addition to the high costs of inputs, the farmers, who are "licensees" on trust land, struggle to access credit as they lack title deeds.

Were it not for what he earns working for the National Irrigation Board (NIB) - which runs the Ahero scheme - Opiyo would not meet the needs of his family from farming.

"Poverty is very high among many farmers under the Ahero scheme because they never make enough to cover needs such as school fees and payment for medicine when children fall sick; look at the structures we live in, most of them are semi-permanent," Opiyo said.

"Many of us do not even own a cow or some goats. Our father managed to [send] us to school from the proceeds of his [1.6ha] of rice, but for us, his children, it is no longer enough."

Low yields, better prospects

According to NIB, the average yield of Basmati rice at Ahero is 13-25 (75kg) bags per 0.4ha when it should be 20-30 bags; while the yield for Sindano rice is 15-30 bags, when it should be more than 30 bags.

At the start of operations in 1969, the Ahero Irrigation Scheme had 519 farmers, each with 1.6ha held on trust by the government. The farmers have since sub-divided their farms among their children but they are not allowed to sub-divide below 0.4ha or sell the land.

In 2009, a farmer-oriented funding arrangement, known as the Revolving Fund, was set up to support the farmers' production and marketing efforts.

Jacob Ongere, a farmer at the Ahero scheme and an extension officer with the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN that with the Revolving Fund and the government's Economic Stimulus Programme (ESP), things were now looking up.

"The profit that farmers are making is still way below average but we hope this will change with more funding and support in sectors such as marketing and capacity-building," he said.

Through the Revolving Fund Office, Ongere said, the Ahero farmers hope to boost their livelihoods by "exploiting agronomical practices" to improve their yields - transplanting on time and using pesticides and fungicides.

He added: “The situation is so bad right now such that we are in the harvesting season but the majority of farmers with children who sat their primary school examinations last year cannot afford to take their children to secondary boarding schools. The best they can do is send them to day schools because the charges are lower."

He urged the farmers to explore consolidation and adopt a group approach to reap better yields.

Devolving responsibility

Laban Kiplagat, senior NIB manager at Ahero, said NIB encouraged farmers to take greater responsibility of the scheme.

He said NIB was concentrating on its core business: "The NIB's core activities include provision of water and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure as well as management of farmers' organizations," Kiplagat said.

"Therefore, the NIB would be offloading production, marketing and capacity-building so that farmers can manage themselves better."

He said Nyanza had a potential to irrigate up to 200,000ha in its Lake Basin region.

Kiplagat said the farmers should embrace a culture of saving because "they tend to spend all they get from their harvests without proper planning for the high costs of operations - ploughing, water abstraction [pump-fed water supply] and tractors, which are costly to hire; and other inputs such as fertilizer and seed".

Increasing cropping frequency would also help farmers increase their earnings, he said. "Currently many farmers plant the rice crop once a year, meaning the land is in use for only four months and then lies fallow for the other eight months."

Kiplagat said NIB wanted to expand the scheme and to open up more swampy areas for irrigation.

"Under Vision 2030, some 40,000ha is expected to be put under irrigation per year, with the NIB having the responsibility of ensuring 30,000ha goes under irrigation," he said. "We hope to do this by exploring the introduction of more crops, such as seed maize, cotton, as well as horticulture, for irrigation."

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