After struggling with diseases, pests, erratic rains and low prices for the last three years, a rising number of Kenyan farmers are giving up on maize.
The farmers, in particular those who have been growing the crop on large-scale in the breadbasket regions of Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and Bungoma, are turning to other crops, among them sugarcane and horticulture.
It is a new trend that is threatening production of maize, the staple food of the East African nation.
Last year, armyworms and low rains were the biggest threat to the production of the crop.
The large farmers had to spend more money on spraying the crop to eradicate the past, pushing up production costs.
Small farmers were lucky because chemicals received from county government catered for most of their needs, thanks to their small acreages.
On the other hand, Kenya suffered a short rain season, with crops drying in several parts of the country. Consequently, overall maize production declined to some 33 million bags in 2017, down from at least 40 million bags a year ago.
“I have had enough of maize problems that I am not ready to plant the crop again,” Japheth Omose, a farmer in Trans Nzoia, said on Friday.
Omose is this season growing French beans and sugar snap peas for export. “For the last two seasons, I have been growing the two crops on half-acre on trial basis, selling to an exporter and they have done well,” he said.
From the half-acre, Omose harvested produce that earned him 600 U.S. dollars, with maize from his ten acres earning him nearly the same amount.
“I looked at the earnings and did not even think twice. It was time to hang my boots on maize,” he said, capturing sentiments of farmers who are shifting to other crops in the region.
While he has been growing maize once a season because the crop takes eight months to nature, he now grows French beans twice a year.
He sells a kilo of the crop at 0.6 dollars, with first grade produce offering a premium price. Those farmers abandoning maize for cane are mainly in Trans Nzoia, having gotten contracts from a miller in western Kenya.
“With cane, I am assured of the market,” said Stephen Kemoi, 58, who has been growing maize for 20 years on 60 acres.
The farmers are offered planting materials and fertilizer by the miller who in turn visits farms when the crop is ready at 16 months and harvests the crop.
However, the shift from maize is not only a threat to the East African nation’s food security but also to the entire maize sub sector.
Seed producers, traders and fertilizer makers are among those to be hit harder by the new trend.
Kenya has at least 50 registered seed companies mainly dealing in seeds of cereals such as maize, wheat and barley. The companies employ thousands of people directly and indirectly, including agro-dealers.
Government incentives like the offering of subsidized fertilizer, which has been supplied to mainly small farmers in breadbaskets at a low price of 18 dollars instead of 30 dollars had helped to cushion and entice farmers to grow the crop.
Another initiative that involves buying the produce from farmers at premium price of 32 dollars per 90kg bag had helped boost growers, but adversities that include pests, diseases and low rainfall have washed away the gains.
Rise in cheap imports from neighboring Uganda, Tanzania and even Mexico have worsened the plight of the Kenyan farmers too for years.
Being a staple, maize is consumed by millions of Kenyans, with citizens of the East African nation gobbling up to 4 million bags a month.
“Decline in maize farming means less production and the country cannot rely solely on imports. The new trend should worry policy makers greatly and government should move to give more incentives to farmers like those in Uganda and Tanzania to enable them compete favorably,” said Henry Wandera, an economics lecturer.