No longer at ease in Kenya’s biggest wheat producing belt

Wheat is harvested at a farm in Eldoret. The persistent drought and stem rust have slashed wheat harvests in Kenya.

In 2009, Mr Seng’eny Ole Kametoo was advised to sell his huge herd of cattle and grow wheat which, he was told, was more lucrative.

He promptly put 50 acres of his land at Ololulung’a in Narok South District under wheat, expecting to reap handsomely.

This was not to be as a devastating drought hit the region, destroying his crop at the crucial flowering stage.

The harvest did not go beyond 60 bags, about one bag per acre.

The devastating loss, which ran into millions of shillings, made him vow never to grow wheat again.

Last year though, resilient farmers had a good harvest after the area received enough rainfall.

But wheat prices went down due to the 10 per cent import duty slapped by the East African Community common market, which came

into force at the time.

Profits were also eroded by the high cost of production caused by a disease called stem rust.

It is no longer at ease in Narok, Kenya’s biggest wheat belt. With some 100,000 hectares under the crop, the county is the largest

wheat producing area in East Africa.

When it rains, wheat farmers are damned as stem rust, which has been nicknamed the polio of agriculture, ravages the crop with a

vengeance; and when the skies refuse to open up, they are equally doomed.

Cereal Growers Association chairman Timothy Busienei told Saturday Nation in an interview that farmers had lost 75 per cent of their


“What is worse is that they had taken huge loans on inputs,” Mr Busienei said, as he asked the government to write off the loans or

reschedule payments to allow farmers to try their luck again next year.

Records at the Ministry of Agriculture show that farmers in Narok owe the Agricultural Finance Corporation Sh525 million, with an

almost similar amount owed to various banks.

“We urge the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture to tour the region and assess for themselves the situation because this threatens

the country’s food security,” Mr Busienei said.

Kenyan farmers produce about 30 per cent of the second most important staple food, which is grown in Narok, Nakuru, Njoro, Uasin

Gishu and Timau.

The deficit is met with imports.

Narok North district crop development officer Mark Yego said the crop failure will be more devastating this year than in 2009,

considered one of the worst years in recent memory.

“Between January and May, which are the critical months for germination and flowering, we received only 292mm of rainfall, down

from 530.2mm last year and 313.5mm in 2009,” the officer said.

“It rained only once in April and we had 30 millimetres,” Mr Yego said, adding that this was a tenth of the 350mm needed for a good

crop of wheat.

The officer faulted farmers for ignoring expert advice and engaging in unsustainable expansion of land under wheat.

“The situation has been worsened by charcoal burning and downhill ploughing, which has left the land bare and unproductive,” he said,

adding that concerted efforts were needed to make farmers aware of good agricultural practices.

Matters were made worse by local residents who rented out huge tracts of their land leaving their livestock, the other mainstay of the

local economy, to die in droves when drought strikes.

In what has become a vicious cycle, herdsmen have been driving their livestock to graze in the nearby Maasai Mara game reserve,

threatening the fragile ecosystem to the detriment of the world-famous sanctuary and the local and country’s economy.

Dr Joseph Ogutu, a senior researcher at the University of Bohenheim in Germany recently told the BBC that the Mara has lost more

than two-thirds of its wildlife since the first aerial monitoring of Kenya’s wildlife began in 1977.

He warned that the annual wildebeeste migration, for which the Mara is world renowned, will soon be a thing of the past as it now

involved “64 per cent fewer animals than in the early 1980s.”

The researcher pinpointed the three main causes of the dramatic decline in game numbers as poaching, change in land use patterns in

ranches within the Mara ecosystem and an increase in the number and range of livestock in the area.

Unprecedented expansion of wheat farming in recent years as well as prolonged and more frequent drought seasons have seen

livestock and wildlife compete for pasture and water in the park.

The situation has not been helped by the frequent failure of the crop, which has impoverished the local community.

According to data obtained from the Cereal Growers Association, the cost of producing wheat has shot up to Sh33,000 per acre and

for a grower to pay bills and make a small profit, he or she has to harvest at least 12 bags per acre and sell it for Sh3,300 a bag.

However, farmers, led by Narok Wheat Farmers Association chairman David Mpatiany said more than 60,000 hectares of the crop had

been lost to the drought.

“Almost all the farmers may not recoup what they spent, let alone be able to repay loans,” Mr Mpatiany said.

He appealed to the government to price a bag of the cereal at Sh4,000.

Dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin, Uganda, and its year of naming, 1999, stem rust is ravaging Africa and the Middle East and

also threatening China and India.
In total, experts put the number of people whose lives are threatened due to this disease at one billion.

Mr Yego says those most affected by the disease, which can wipe out up to 70 per cent of the crop, are new unsuspecting farmers

who are lured by tales of fabulous riches to be made from wheat production.

“Armed with this information and a burning desire to make quick money, they do not seek expert advice and are content to spray the

crop normally. They end up getting devastating results,” he said.

He said that this, combined with the unreliable weather conditions, can translate into massive losses for the farmers.

“Ug99 camouflages. You can do the normal spraying only to realise when it was tool late that it has been there all along. The stem rust

race needs a higher dosage and a specific chemical,” Ms Ruth Wanyera, a research scientist at Njoro Kenya Agricultural Research

Institute (Kari) told the Saturday Nation.

Kari is collaborating with Egerton University and the Cereal Disease Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, USA, to create genetic

barriers which Ug99 cannot overcome.

“It has also been discovered that farmers spray at the wrong time and are administering low doses. When you spray your field when it

is still dewy or has just rained, you are under-dosing. It should be one litre for 200 litres of water for every hectare or two-and-a-half

acres,” Ms Wanyera said.

She said that so far, no resistant variety of the disease has been found.

“Kari researchers are searching for resistant varieties to provide long-term and effective control of the disease, but it will take some

time before they become available to farmers.

“Short-term control strategies can be achieved with standard application of fungicides provided the infection is not severe,” she said.

Mr Mpatiany says the disease can increase production costs by Sh5,000 an acre.