The farms are ready and the rains will be pouring down any time. But in Kenya’s maize belt, there is panic, anxiety and anger among farmers as the planting season sets in.
Subsidised fertiliser, which in recent years has played a key role in boosting production, is yet to reach many areas in the North Rift and Western Kenya.
Consequently, many farmers are scaling down the acreage they will put under maize, meaning that Kenya will still have to spend billions of shillings to import the staple food.
The National Cereals and Produce Board, the agency responsible for the imports, says 50 per cent of the farm input is in the country, even as it is yet to reach farmers.
In the North Rift, for example, only 50,000 bags were supplied in Eldoret two weeks ago when they were all snapped up.
Indeed, key areas like Moi’s Bridge, Bungoma and Trans Nzoia have not received even a single bag of fertiliser. The region requires up to 500,000 bags.
NCPB has been taking cash deposits from farmers who hope to be supplied with the fertiliser once it arrives. The problem is that not many are sure it will come in good time.
NCPB managing director Gideon Misoi says the problem was partly caused by late release of funds by the Treasury. But he was diplomatic in his response to the crisis.
“We understand that the Treasury has got so many projects to finance and we cannot blame them entirely for the delay; we have to appreciate that at the end of the day they give us something but have to meet the cost of importation,” said Prof Misoi.
But Agriculture minister Sally Kosgei was more uncompromising when confronted by farmers at a political function in Eldoret at the weekend.
She criticised the trend of Treasury sitting on the money meant for fertiliser, adding that it should always be included in the Budget.
‘‘Every year, our efforts to secure funds in time to make the input available have been futile,’’ she says.
The ministry, she added, should not be going to beg for money from the Treasury only when the planting season approaches.
“The only way we can take this issue of food security seriously is when money is set aside in the ministry’s budget,” Ms Kosgei added.
It has also emerged that NCPB is facing big distribution difficulties.
The board was using trucks to ferry fertiliser from Mombasa to various parts of the country, but the system has proved to be too slow and inefficient.
Rail transport, which could have been the most efficient form of transport according to farmers, collapsed nearly 10 years ago.
“We are told that the repairs are now being done on the railway line because it has been many years since a train passed here,” said Mr Alfred Mocho, a farmer in Lugari District who normally picks up his supplies from Moi’s Bridge.
At the NCPB depot in Moi’s Bridge, nearly 2,000 farmers have registered and paid for fertiliser. But by last evening, only 69 had been served.
“I’m number 600 on the list. I’m not sure if I will get what I have paid for,’’ said Mr Mocho.
At the Eldoret depot on Monday, another 4, 500 bags were supplied on Monday and have already been exhausted.
“If I had received fertiliser, I would be doing dry planting this week so that when the rain comes, even if it is in two weeks’ time, it finds my seed in the ground,” said John Kimei, a farmer in Uasin Gishu.
Mr Misoi says 60,000 bags of the DAP fertiliser had been dispatched to Eldoret, 8,000 to Bungoma and 3,000 to Moi’s Bridge, noting that most of them will be arriving on Thursday.
Many farmers may be forced to plant without fertiliser if they fail to get supplies in time, and hope to use the top dressing one once the maize germinates. But this will affect the yields at harvest time.
Mr Mocho says Kenya cannot have enough food until the government gives farmers the attention that they deserve.
“Inputs such as fertiliser should be available at any time that a farmer needs them,” said Mr Mocho who grows nearly 100 acres of maize annually.
Mr Mocho is one of those who have been forced to scale down on the acreage under maize plantation.
“Maize farming is no longer a profitable venture because when fertiliser delays, it implies that we plant late, and its impact is a poor harvest,” said Mr Mocho, who is currently planting bananas, cassava and mangoes as alternative crops. He says many farmers cannot afford the higher prices of fertiliser from private stockists.
While a subsidised bag of DAP fertiliser sells for Sh2,500, private stockists sell it for as much as Sh5,000.
Another farmer, Mr John Wangila, says small scale maize cultivation is no longer a commercially viable venture.
“Many farmers plant for their own domestic consumption, as it no loner makes commercial sense,” he told the Nation.
This seems to lend credence to research findings by Tegemeo Institute of Egerton University which said last week that subsidised fertiliser was only helping large scale farmers and cartels.
However, many on the ground still believe that the input is crucial in enabling them to grow their own food.
“If we do not do this, it means Kenya has to import a lot more maize,” Mr Wangila said.
He also blames cartels that have taken over the fertiliser distribution business. They claim to be large scale farmers and buy in bulk to cause shortages only to re-sell at a profit, he says.
A report by the Ministry of Agriculture on food analysis indicates that Kenya will import 1.35 million 90-kilogramme bags of maize by the end of June this year, which is a rise in projection of maize imports from about 700,000 bags in December 2011 when the ministry issued its food situation report.
Kenya consumes about 3.63 million bags of maize monthly, implying that by end of June, the population of 40 million people will have needed about 12 million bags of maize.
The government, through the Ministry of Special Programmes issued Sh2 billion to NCPB which was used to buy 600,000 bags of maize meant for strategic grain reserve.
This is way below what the government promised to buy in order to boost its reserves following last year’s shortage.