How mismanagement of Tana rice plant crashed hopes of farmers

Rice harvesting at a farm in Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Odour I Nation Media Group

Nearly 10 years ago, the Tana Delta irrigation programme was the centre of agricultural excellence, a source of income for more than 1,500 households.

More than 200 residents benefited from direct employment, making the Tana Delta one of the most vibrant economic hubs in the region.

Rice farmers earned good money from the readily available market and the multimillion-shilling rice milling plant.

"That factory made millionaires in Tana Delta. That was the time farming was a great joy and we made good money out of it," recalls Jonathan Bonaya, a farmer.

Mr Bonaya owned 12 acres where he grew rice out of the 4,200 acres under production at the time.

Proceeds from the farm educated and fed his children, and he was able to employ 15 people as labourers.
He would pay them a daily wage of Sh300 per acre and still earn a huge profit from his plantation.

"I bought a vehicle at that time and I would visit the plantation and sometimes ferry some of my workers home," he recounts.

But in 2013, the project suddenly collapsed.

The irrigation system crashed and the River Tana changed course, with residents blaming engineers for disregarding their advice.

Alleged mismanagement of resources in the milling factory led to low production and workers were laid off as the plant could no longer sustain itself.

In less than a year, the miller stopped roaring. 

The machines went dead silent.

"Some of us had rice to harvest at the time but we were struggling to find a market. We also took our rice home – 50 bags in the house to eat since the market we depended on collapsed," says Joseph Wayu.

They watched in disbelief, clinging to hope that the government would revive the plant as the machines were still in good condition.

They said engineers tampered with the dykes, leading to the diversion of the river.

"We had advised the engineers that whatever they were planning to do was going to cause harm. I remember we raised our voices in a public participation forum, but weeks later, they did what we had advised them against, since they were the experts," says Mr Wayu.
Just as they had warned, the results affected irrigation on the farm.

For a long time, the experts did not acknowledge the mistake, according to the residents, arguing the diversion of the course of the river was a natural occurrence.

But residents insist the changes made by engineers were the cause.

"We live here, we have mastered the river, we have tried things while farming and seen what they would turn to, if only they had listened to us and acknowledged our contribution," says Moses Gwiyo.

The collapse of the farm left farmers destitute and frustrated.

According to Jeniffer Simon, some farmers succumbed to drinking while struggling with depression, while the youth who used to earn a living from the farms joined criminal gangs in Mombasa, Kilifi, and Garissa.

"We saw people losing their lives to drugs and others to bullets. Marriages that were doing fine suddenly started breaking apart. It was a test of time that needed a lot of prayers to withstand," she narrates.

More than 30,000 people were affected and families had to adopt other means to survive or they would suffer a mental breakdown.

Poverty rocked more than 10 villages that benefited from the project. Joy was replaced by a sombre mood as the once enterprise-vibrant Tana Delta went to slumber.

"Life changed, it has never been the same, we had to struggle to start farming other crops. That is when we went into farming of watermelon, others became hunters of wildlife for sale while others became fishermen," says Mrs Simon.

Years later, some of the officers have been charged in court for mismanagement of resources at the plant.

Senior government officers and parliamentary committees have made visits to the factory, keeping the hopes of farmers alive with the promise of reviving the plant.

The long wait could be nearing its end as the state Department of Trade is hinting at reviving the plant before giving the factory to a private entity.

To restore full operations at the 12,000-acre farmland and factory, the government is seeking Sh1.6 billion.

According to Trade Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina, the government is committed to reviving the irrigation project, which is key in addressing food security and is in line with the Big Four agenda.

“It’s time to restore farming in this area and also milling, but the other thing which is evident is that even as we wait for our rice development to be restarted, this factory with a little bit of maintenance can mill for other corporations, so we need to get it running,” she said.

To revive the plant's current technology, which is obsolete, the government will use Sh5 million. However, Ms Maina notes that equipping the plant with the latest technology would require Sh70 million.

Once the plant starts operating, the CS noted, it would be possible to get an investor to take it over and partner with farmers.

Ms Maina also said the government had invested Sh35 million to develop the intake at the Kitere Bell mouth and to desilt other parts of the channel.

"This is the beginning phase, there will be a need for subsequent investment but this will be enough to start the process,” she said.

She added that the government would play a more facilitative role in infrastructure extension services and training, among others, and leave the rest to private sector, community-based organisations to do the actual work.

Managing Director Liban Duba noted that the scheme collapsed after the main intake was blocked as a result of the diversion of the River Tana. 

But he said the revival has begun and will be done in phases due to financial hiccups.

To begin with, the experts have opened up the intake to enable the flow of water for farming.

“One of the key challenges was the water. It is back now and the other challenge is community engagement, which we have settled. The desiltation process and construction work has been done with full community engagement,” he said.

The 36km Kitere Channel project cuts across 17 villages with a population of 35,000.

The revival of the project will be a source of income for more than 150,000 people.

"The government has been promising a lot for years, but with what we are seeing happening on the ground at the moment, we are optimistic that the time has come. We shall be back on the farm," said farmer Mwajuma Said.