Former sand harvesters in Murang’a find better returns in rice

Ms Lydiah Wawira, a rice farmer in Murang'a during an interview on May 24, 2022. She said the farmers have been exploited by brokers for lack of market know-how.

Photo credit: Irene Mugo I Nation Media Group

Some 10km from the Sagana-Murang'a highway in Kiharu constituency, Murang’a county, Peter Irungu is fighting off birds from his two-acre rice farm by throwing stones and shouting at them.

For five years, this has been his routine after giving up sand harvesting and charcoal making in his remote Thaju village. This is replicated on dozens of farms in the area. Residents ventured into rice farming in an attempt to improve their livelihoods.

The fields, now flooded with water drawn from the Sagana River to enhance the production of the paddy rice, were previously grazing land for cattle.

"Things have changed around here since we started rice farming ...  we are able to keep our children in school and afford basic needs consistently," he said.

Mr Peter Irungu, the vice chairman of Thawathawa water project in Muranga that comprises of 100 rice farmers in the county. Lack of proper infrastructure and water has dampened their ability to produce optimally.

Photo credit: Irene Mugo I Nation Media Group

Farmers under the Thawathawa water project grow the Pishori and Komboka rice varieties, which they sell to brokers for between Sh50 and Sh65, while farmers in Mwea, Kirinyaga County, are selling a kilogramme of paddy rice for Sh100 and white rice at Sh135.

They decried exploitation by middlemen, who take advantage of farmers’ lack of an established market for their produce like their counterparts in Mwea and the know-how to move their product from the farm to the market.

"Brokers and lack of a market are our main headache. We sell to them at a low price because we have no other option, but we would want the government to help us boost the price of our rice," said Ms Lydiah Wambui.

The village also has poor roads and few residents are connected to electricity, meaning they can't mill their produce and take it to the market in Kagio, Kirinyaga County.

"We have two seasons. We harvest and wait for the brokers to come and buy the rice ... its little but it supports our livelihoods," said Mr Irungu.

The farmers prefer the Komboka rice variety as it produces the same aroma as Pishori that gives it an edge in the market but has higher production costs.

They say Komboka is resistant to diseases such as rice blast, and birds, a major menace for rice farmers, do not like it as much as they do Pishori. 

Mr Peter Irungu, the vice chairman of Thawathawa water project in Muranga that comprises of 100 rice farmers in the county. Lack of proper infrastructure and water has dampened their ability to produce optimally.

Photo credit: Irene Mugo I Nation Media Group

"The only differ in price with a margin of Sh10," said the vice chairman of the Thawathawa water project Peter Irungu, which has 100 farmers growing rice.

Besides Quelea birds, farmers said they lose close to 50 per cent of their produce to infestations of snails that strike when the rice starts to shoot in the paddies.

"To avoid infestation, we always drain out water until it rains," he said.

Unlike farmers in Mwea, who are supported by their local government to ward off invasive birds, they do not receive any form of aid in order to produce rice optimally. 

Farmers from Kirinyaga County have moved to the area due to shrinking land size in the Mwea irrigation scheme.

For Moses Kariithi, he prefers growing the Koshihikali variety of rice on a leased five-acre plot in Murang'a.

A worker puts fertilizer on the rice paddies in a farm Murang’a.

Photo credit: Irene Mugo I Nation Media Group

"Compared to Mwea, where I grow rice in many segmented portions, here I can grow my rice in one place, which is convenient," he said.

Koshihikali is resistant to cold-related diseases and rice blast.

With already established markets in Kirinyaga, he has been linking farmers to buyers and hopes to start a diesel-operated mill to help them process their rice.

"We shall start small, where we hope to mill around 20 to 50 tonnes of rice per day," he said.

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