Maize farmers in the North Rift region are staring at a bleak future even as they start harvesting this year’s crop due to the unsteady market and delays by the government to pay them billions of shillings in arrears.
The farmers on Wednesday said they risk having their property auctioned to recover loans they borrowed for their investment.
Maize prices have plummeted to as low as Sh900 per 90kg bag as a result of the influx of cheap maize from neighbouring countries.
“Most of these farmers secured loans from the Agricultural Finance Corporation and other financial institutions and they are unable to repay their debt due to the failure by the government to pay them on time. The creditors have issued notices for them to settle the loans or have their property auctioned,” said Mr Musa Barno, chairman of the Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers, Uasin Gishu chapter.
He disclosed that some farmers have started harvesting this season’s crop while the government is yet to pay the outstanding Sh3.5 billion for maize it purchased through the National Cereals and Produce Board last year.
The farmers are a worried lot since no allocation has been made in this years' budget to buy this season's crop, a situation which is likely to push prices further down.
Some farmers have opted to use the harvested crop to make silage for their cows, to avert further losses.
“I think I might be forced to use the maize to make silage for my cows because the prices have drastically dropped,” said Mr Wesley Rono, from Moi’s Bridge in Uasin Gishu County.
Maize from neighbouring countries like Tanzania and Uganda have flooded the market.
Traders have increased imports from Uganda and the cross-border trade is expected to rise, dampening the hopes of farmers who expect to reap from their sweat.
Leaders from the North Rift region, led by Deputy President William Ruto and Uasin Gishu Governor Jackson Mandago, have urged farmers to grow alternative crops following the challenges in the maize sector.
Mr Ruto said crops such as avocados, tea and coffee fetch better prices in the export market.
“We have had perennial noises in the maize sector yet it is not a must that we grow maize. I think it is time we rethink what we can grow and export so that we earn better prices,” said the DP during a fundraiser in Nandi on August 26, 2018.
“For what reason should we grow maize when there is no market for it? It will be unwise to plant maize and then sell the crop for a pittance. If you are not contented with the prices offered, then plant these other crops or use the maize to make silage and sell your milk,” Mr Ruto added.
But the comments have elicited mixed reactions from farmers, with a majority against the proposal.
They argue that alternative crops take time to mature and want the government to resolve problems in the sector.
“These crops will take four to five years to mature, how will we survive during this time? Most of us rely on maize to pay for our children’s fees and to support our families. Instead of running away from the issue, I think we should pin-point the problem and address it. It is time maize-growing counties jointly come up with milling and packaging plans and a good marketing strategy,” said Mr Hezekiah Kosgei, a farmer from Ziwa, Uasin Gishu.
The volatility of maize prices has forced some farmers to plant maize exclusively for their cows.
Ms Caroline Tanui, a dairy farmer from Leseru village in Turbo, Uasin Gishu County, who has 50 dairy cows, is using her 35-acre maize plantation to produce silage to last her 12 months.
“Last season, we bought silage during the dry spell which pushed the cost of production up. The silage lasted only four months but this time we have decided to prepare early,” Ms Tanui said.
On average, her cows consume a minimum of 18kg of feeds, which makes the enterprise barely profitable.
“We had done only four acres last year and we were forced to buy silage. This year we are not going to buy any silage. The production cost goes up by around 70 per cent when you buy feeds,” she said.
Mr Willy Kirwa from Kapseret is another large-scale dairy farmer, who plants maize purely for silage making.
“I started with two acres, then 25 and with the poor prices of maize in the market, I am now doing around 50 acres purely for silage-making,” Mr Kirwa said.
He plans to package surplus silage for sell to other dairy farmers to boost his income.