The North Rift has always been the grain basket of the country. But a myriad of factors have conspired to eat deeply into agriculture production in the region.
Experts and farmers have pointed at unpredictable weather conditions, frequent outbreak of diseases, rising population, and costly inputs, among other factors, as the key threats to the North Rift’s continued status as the country’s grain store.
The current armyworm attack has only served to complicate matters for farmers, threatening food security.
Experts are warning that the situation could get worse if corrective measures are not taken. Already, more than 40 per cent of the crop been damaged by pests.
“The attack by the fast spreading Fall armyworm and repeated outbreak of MLN disease spells doom to many farmers considering the high cost of farm inputs and an unstable maize market,” said Mr Andrew Rotich, a farmer from Cherangany, Trans Nzoia County.
Most farmers in the region have not recovered from an outbreak of Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) disease that ravaged parts of the country last season, forcing some of them to uproot the crop.
The MLN disease damaged over 260,000 hectares of maize valued at Sh2 billion in the Rift Valley last season.
Some farmers in Uasin Gishu County have reduced the acreage under the crop, with approximately 77,225 hectares planted with maize out of the targeted 92,500.
Lack of sufficient rainfall has been cited by most farmers as the reason for this move. The region received 22.5mm of rainfall during the planting period of April as compared with 134mm last year.
The most affected counties in the region — which received less than 3 per cent rainfall during the planting period, February to April — include Trans-Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Nandi, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot, Baringo, Nakuru and Bungoma.
They are classified as high maize growing areas, forming the country’s food basket.
Trans-Nzoia County, a high maize producing region, harvested 4.7 million bags of maize, down from 5 million bags last season. The yield is expected to decline further due to the armyworm attack.
The county has allocated Sh45 million to fight the Fall armyworm, which threatens to wipe out more than 500 hectares of maize in the country’s bread basket.
“The funds will enable us to acquire the right chemicals to control the pests which have been spotted in farms in Endebess and Kiminini sub-counties,” Governor Patrick Khaemba said in Kitale.
Maize production in West Pokot County is expected to decline from 1.3 million to 5.6 million bags after some farmers failed to plant the crop due to persistent drought.
Wheat production in the region is also expected to reduce due subdivision of land and disease outbreaks.
The farmers said land fragmentation into uneconomical units had also contributed to the recent decline in wheat production, resulting in importation of the crop.
“Wheat production is highly mechanical. Sub-division of land into smaller units due to population pressure renders cultivation of the crop uneconomical,” said Mr Wilson Kosgei, a farmer from Moiben, Uasin Gishu County.
The outbreak of wheat stem rust such as ug99 which attacks all commercial varieties, and high taxation on major inputs such as machinery, high fuel and county government fees are yet other factors contributing to lower production of the crop.
Wheat was the second most important cereal after maize five years ago in terms of production and consumption. But the trend has since changed as more farmers have diversified to other more profitable investment.
Rift Valley region produced an average of 4.5 million bags of wheat, from 127,825 hectares under the crop last season. Kenya produces an average of 350,000 tonnes against consumption of 1.08 million tonnes, forcing it to import the deficit.
“It is risky to invest heavily in wheat production considering unpredictable climatic conditions and the market price,” said Mr David Sang, from Sergoit, Uasin Gishu County.
Inadequate information and limited access to suitable varieties and processing technologies from research institutions have also been identified by the Ministry of Agriculture as other factors contributing to the decline in wheat production.
Limited availability of breeder and certified seed and instability in producer prices following limited government intervention in wheat marketing are yet other factors contributing to low wheat production.
Farmers have appealed to the government to help them access better markets following failure by the private sector to take up functions previously undertaken by the National Cereals and Produce Board.