New bid to limit farmers to maize draws backlash

Msalaba village farmers

Farmers prepare the field for planting in Msalaba village in Malava, Kakamega County, late last month.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

To grow or not to grow cash crops? This is the question that is at the heart of a simmering dispute between farmers in the North Rift region and a parliamentary committee that is drafting a new law seeking to prohibit the growers from planting cash crops such as sugarcane on land meant for producing maize.

The key consideration for the lawmakers is food security, given that the region is the country’s breadbasket.

Farmers, on the other hand, are compelled by dwindling profits in maize production to try a hand in more lucrative sub-sectors of the industry that are cash-crop driven.

National Assembly Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Chairman John Mutunga (Tigania West) told Nation the proposed law will restrict certain areas to the cultivation of specific crops.

Land fragmentation

Speaking during a tour of Trans Nzoia County with his team, Dr Mutunga said land fragmentation and a shift to cultivation of cash crops posed a threat to the country’s food security.

But farmers want to be allowed to grow sugarcane and horticultural crops, which they consider more lucrative. Apart from high production costs, the maize sub-sector, farmers lament, is in the firm grips of cartels that fix prices to ensure the brokers reap maximum profits while growers are left with almost nothing.

“[Maize] is no longer profitable to high production costs and exploitation of cartel who enjoy protection from unscrupulous government officials,” Mr Michael Kiptoo said in Turbo, Uasin Gishu County.

To worsen matters for the beleaguered farmer, local leaders have thrown their weight behind the proposals. The county governments of Uasin Gishu, Nandi and Trans Nzoia have introduced policies limiting wheat and maize farmers from taking up sugarcane production and have tabled their proposals to the Ministry of Agriculture.

‘Poses a threat’

“The introduction of sugarcane farming in Trans Nzoia County poses a threat to maize production and the country’s food security,” Kwanza MP Ferdinand Wanyonyi told Nation in an interview.

Some of the areas where farmers have begun growing sugarcane in Trans Nzoia County include parts of Kwanza, Saboti and Endebes constituencies.

Sugarcane production in the Rift Valley region increased from 1,041,780 tonnes to 1,644,395 tonnes last season, while the area under the crop increased from 56.8 hectares to 64.2 hectares.

The construction of Butali Sugar Factory, the rehabilitation of Muhoroni and Chemelil factories, the revival of cooperative societies and prompt payments has motivated farmers in Kericho, Nandi and Uasin Gishu Counties to venture into sugarcane production.

Plans are at an advanced stage to lease out state-owned sugar companies to private millers to boost productivity.

“There is huge potential for sugarcane production in the province, especially in Transmara, Nandi South, Tindiret, Belgut and Kericho,” says an annual report published by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sugarcane farmers in Nandi South deliver their cane to Butali in Western while those in Kericho, Kepkelion, Belgut, Tindiret and Transmara deliver their cane to Muhoroni, Chemelil and South Nyanza Sugar Company.

“Cane production has increased to between 60 tonnes and 100 tonnes per acre as farmers adopt modern farming techniques,” Eldoret-based agricultural expert George Otieno told Nation, adding: “This can go much higher with irrigation.”

Most factories pay Sh4,200 per tonne of cane, which farmers consider to be more lucrative than maize or wheat.

“It is more profitable to invest in sugarcane production than maize or wheat due to low input and high prices,” said Mr Peter Boit, who has put 100 acres under the crop.