PARADIGM SHIFT: From Cane Farming Farmers In Western Kenya Opt For New Rice For Africa (NERICA)
New Rice for Africa (NERICA) is a cultivar group of interspecific hybrid rice developed by the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) to improve the yield of African rice cultivars since it is a type of rice that grows without water and a cross between African and Asian rice .It is being hailed as a “miracle crop”
Asmin Oparanya started growing NERICA after moving from surgarcane farming. She is a testimony of how dry land rice gave new life desperate cane farmers who turned their sugarcane farms into rice fields in Kakamega.
Oparanya, “I was tired, and it was long overdue. I had been growing sugarcane for nearly two decades. I recall a time when sugarcane farming was associated with opulence and success; a time when farmers in Western anticipated the boom that came after sugarcane companies paid for their produce.”
She was supplying Mumias Sugar Company who paid her well and most farmers depended on that money to feed their families and pay school fees. After sometime, there was delay in collecting sugarcane, payments would take too long to mature, and sometimes the company would pay in installments, with a promise that it would top up when things stabilized. But they never did.
Oparanya, “We kept hoping everything would be fine, but it just got worse. The more we waited, more news on slowing down of Mumias Sugar Company kept coming.”
Every time we watched news on the sinking sugar giant, it sparked fears that we may never benefit from sugarcane farming like we once did. we encountered a period full of uncertainty, anxiety and hopelessness.
It was until I took a stroll around the village three years ago that I realized the viability of what I term as “magical” rice. My neighbours had taken it up, and had turned their sugarcane farms into rice fields — on dry land.
Armed with a panga, I walked into my farm and slashed the sugarcane plants one after another until the large plantation reduced to heaps of stalks piled on the ground.
“We had all these sugarcane plants in our farms, with nobody to collect them. We would invite retailers selling for local consumption to come and buy, but much of it got wasted,” she says. One morning, she woke up, looked around her farm and decided she could not do it anymore. She decided to cut it all out, and seek another option.
The option that appealed to the lady was something she had heard about, but sounded nearly impossible.
She says, “I would be at the market and someone would mention a type of rice that grows without water. I would tell them that is not possible. I grew up knowing rice grows in water puddles.”
According to the head of Crop Division at the Ministry of Agriculture Johnson Irungu, the type of rice is called Nerica and is already gaining popularity in Western Kenya.
Irungu, “The rice does not require a lot of water. The farmer needs to have good soil that can hold water, and they are ready to start growing rice.”
Oparanya says she got her first seeds from someone who had grown Nerica before and immediately sowed it on her farm.
She says her first harvest on the quarter acre was not a lot, but she is excited at the possibility the new crop brings.
“This is the second time I’m planting, and I think this time it will be better because after experimenting the first time, I feel more confident,” she says.
Meanwhile, Marion Gathumbi, in charge of rice promotion programme at the Ministry of Agriculture, says there is hope for farmers who want to grow Nerica rice.
Gathumbi, “In one hectare farm, a farmer can harvest two to four tonnes of the rice upon harvesting. NERICA rice is phenomenal because it grows just like maize, and farmers in all areas of the country can take it up and grow it.
She advises that its seeds are available at the Kenya Seed Company for farmers who are interested in it and confesses that Oparanya is among many of the farmers in Western Kenya who are growing it.
Opranya says even though sugarcane farming did not work, her heart was still in farming and is willing to try anything that provides a promise of good harvest. She also keeps a cow, which she says is her trial for mixed farming. Having a cow meant she needed to get a sustainable food plan for her animal.
“I was not ready to employ a herdsboy. I decided to plant Napier grass. Grass flourished When the grass flourished, I realised I could feed my cow and have some left over for sale to other farmers keeping livestock.
“Some people tease me and say I have not gotten over growing sugarcane because Napier plants are similar to sugarcane from a distance,” she says.
Oparanya also grows cassava and maize on her farm and sells them in the local market, keeping only a small portion for her family’s consumption.
“Farming can give you money, but you have to be dedicated to it and be flexible to overcome uncertainties that come with it,” she says. She adds that when sugarcane farming did not work out, most farmers got discouraged and some abandoned farming altogether. “Finding something new to grow gives hope,” she says while weeding her rice plantation.
However, Oparanya is yet to master the dynamics of growing the crop for maximum yield. Even though she has it in her farm, she says she learns something new every day. She talks of days when she wakes up and realises the leaves look different, and she has to consult county agricultural officers to find a solution.
There are also days when the crops seem to wilt from too much sun, a situation she says is easily remedied by watering them. “They are sensitive crops, but once you learn how to care for them, you realise there is potential in earnings from this waterless rice,” she says. Oparanya says growing the new type of rice is a sign that despite the losses they got when sugarcane farming lost value, they have found something to cushion them.
The rice is a representation of a new beginning—a promise she and other farmers hold on to and hope will turn their fortunes.
By Malachi Motano