Massive crop failure in "grain basket"

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 told IRIN on 17 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."

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Samwel Karanja from Njururi village in Lare division, Njoro. He lost eight acres of maize and beans he had planted after the long rains failed

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.

Food insecurity assessment

Worsening drought conditions in Kenya will increase the number of food-insecure, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Jeanine Cooper, head of OCHA Kenya, told IRIN her agency had launched a five-year advocacy campaign to end drought emergencies in the country.

According to the findings of the 2009 long rains assessment, conducted on 13-31 July by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG), food security and livelihood challenges continue to affect thousands of people in the Rift Valley's traditionally surplus regions of Nakuru, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia, where most of those displaced by post-election violence in early 2008 took refuge.

The KFSSG said most parts of the eastern and northern pastoral districts had experienced yet another poor season, and food security was likely to accelerate through October.

The assessment found that general food insecurity was due to failure to plant in 2008, the delayed onset of long rains in 2009 as well as poor access to food due to high prices.

The assessment was conducted among the former IDPs who are now returnees to their farms, and those staying in transit camps but working on their farms.

Most IDPs lost animals or moved them elsewhere due to post-election violence or cattle rustling.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Unlike this healthy maize crop (above), the crop planted in the larger Nakuru area in the Rift Valley has become stunted and dry

"Lack of grazing space and housing in transit camps has acted as a major constraint to dairy farming," the KFSSG reported. "The emerging scenario has resulted in the price of the dairy animals and local poultry in the three districts almost doubling since the post-election violence, while the movement of animals due to displacement has increased incidences of transmittable diseases such as foot and mouth, Anthrax [and] Black Quarter in livestock and Newcastle in poultry."

To cope with the food crisis, the vulnerable communities have resorted to reducing the number and size of meals per day; restricting adult consumption to allow more for children; consuming seed stock; taking children out of school to help search for food; engaging in casual labour; relying on remittances; using part of the resettlement money to open up land; ploughing more than 90 percent of available arable land for crop production; and building residential units on farms for income.

In other parts of the country, substantial crop failure in the southeastern and coastal marginal cropping lowlands is expected to lead to deepening food insecurity, said the assessment.