Taita-Taveta rice farmers are reeling from declining farmgate prices despite a bumper harvest this season.
More than 500 farmers in Taveta sub-county blame poor prices for their unprocessed rice on lack of a milling machine.
The Kimorigo rice store is full of sacks of unprocessed rice, with over 200 tonnes waiting for buyers. The farmers harvest over 1,000 tonnes of rice annually but sell it at throwaway prices to brokers from other counties.
As harvests continue and sacks of unprocessed rice pile up at the store, farmers hope that buyers will materialise.
Robert Mwazighe decried the situation, saying farmers incur huge losses annually.
“As I speak to you, the store is full. Some farmers are even storing their produce in their homes," said Mr Mwazighe, who is also the store manager.
Farmers are worried about exploitation by middlemen from Nairobi who buy unprocessed rice for Sh20 per kilogramme.
Mr Mwazighe said they used to sell their rice to buyers from Ahero, Kisumu County, for Sh35, a price they considered favourable to them.
"They no longer come because they also harvested their rice. Sometimes we don't get buyers at all. We prefer selling at cheaper prices than storing the rice without knowing where to get the market," he added.
Sometimes, brokers bargain for even lower prices from farmers. They eventually give in just to avoid further losses, he said.
"This is disheartening and is making us incur huge losses. It will displace some of us from rice lands," he said.
More rice farmers have now been transformed into helpless farmworkers. The situation has discouraged them from toiling on the farms because their produce is purchased at low prices.
Prices had gone down this season, he noted, the lowest farmers have registered for several years.
"We sell a kilogramme at Sh20. Think about the price of the inputs, the labour and time invested by farmers. It is very discouraging," he said.
Some farmers prefer selling their produce locally but the market is not favourable, as it is infiltrated by rice from other countries, including Tanzania.
A spot check at local markets in Taveta revealed that local rice is poorly processed and unpolished compared with that from other parts of Kenya and imported varieties.
Despite the losses they incur year in, year out, they are optimistic that they will one day enjoy the fruits of their labour.
"For us, we are farming and hoping that things will change in the future. We cannot leave this venture, because this is what we are used to," he said.
Mr Mwazighe blamed their misfortune on lack of a sure market and milling machines to add value to the grain. The machine at Kimorigo is old and dilapidated. It can only process two tonnes per day, leading to low production and poor quality of the grain.
Mr Mwazighe said a kilo of processed rice earns farmers about Sh80 at the milling machine. However, they hardly get buyers.
Sometimes, he said, they sell their unprocessed rice to Tanzanian traders, who process it and export it back to Kenya. The traders buy 150kg for Sh2,000.
"It comes back to our market as Tanzanian rice yet this is something we can do here and earn more money," he said.
In addition, the cost of agricultural inputs has added to the numerous challenges facing the sector in the area.
They include fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and certified seeds, whose prices are soaring.
The farmers asked the county government to provide them with cheaper inputs to boost their production.
Lawrence Martini said they face difficulties accessing affordable farm inputs.
“The economy is dwindling. We are not getting any profits from the farm so we cannot afford the costs of farm inputs. This is seriously threatening our farming activities," he said.
Taita Taveta Agriculture executive Davis Mwangoma said it was unfortunate that rice from Taveta is exported to Tanzania and sold back to Kenya.
He said the devolved unit will purchase a Sh3 million mini milling machine for farmers to add value to their rice on farms.
The farmers will receive the machine before the end of this financial year, he said.
"The machine will help the farmers to benefit from their venture after many years of incurring losses," he said.
He encouraged farmers to form cooperatives so as to attract support from the government.
"We need to work with cooperatives so that we can reach them and assist them in marketing their products. We have so many opportunities to benefit from this sector but we will achieve this if we have proper governance structures," he said.