Wheat farmers lose yields to poor techniques

Kenya's wheat production has been on a downward spiral in recent years, even as demand soars driven by rising urbanization where people are developing an appetite for mass-produced, convenient foods containing processed wheat flour.

The national demand for wheat has increased to 900 tonnes annually against national production of 300 tonnes, with demand rising by some 5 per cent each year on rural urban migration and changing dietary habits. This yawning deficit has taken its toll on food prices and the country GDP growth as wheat is regarded Kenya's second staple food after maize.

This has seen Kenya import about 60 percent of its wheat needs mainly from Egypt and Mauritius, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. And while it is not nearly as widely grown as maize or rice, wheat nevertheless is an important component of the country’s domestic food production - being grown on about 4 per cent of the country’s arable land, as 160,000 hectares out of 4,000,000 hectares of arable land.

Among the major causes of the deficit has been a catastrophic wheat stem rust originating from Uganda and responsible for 50-70 per cent of yield losses which has ravaged Kenya's wheat farmers for the better part of this decade.
The deadly mutant fungus, Ug99, named after its discovery in Uganda in 1999, is spread by wind-borne spores. By 2003, most of Kenyan's wheat varieties had been identified as susceptible to the fungus which turns fields of wheat into black stubble, with empty spikes that hold little or no grain.

Narok one of the leading wheat producing regions in the country, has constantly been among the hardest hit regions by the Ug99 fungus, drastically affecting wheat supply in the country. In 2008 the attack on Narok farms pushed wheat flour prices up by 100 percent. The drop in wheat production and in Narok output again in 2010 was flagged by the Ministry of Planning as one of the factors that slowed Kenya's economic growth in 2011.

The disease has mainly affected small-scale farmers because most of them cannot afford to buy the pesticides, leading to up to 80 per cent of their crop being lost. It is estimated that up to 30,000 tonnes of wheat are lost to the rust annually.
The cost of spraying pesticide four times before the harvest is estimated to be Sh10,000 per hectare, or about 33 per cent of the cost of production. This burden on impotent pest control methods has come at a time when higher yields hold the key to stabilising the prices of products derived from Kenya’s wheat.

But it hasnt been all doom and gloom for some farmers. Private companies privy to the value of wheat in the country have been actively involved in assisting farmers access timely and cost effective pest control mechanisms. Elgon Kenya Limited is one such company. Through an array of pesticides that goes with farmer trainings, the company ensures that every farmer has access to these arsenals at their convenience thanks to its rich agrovet and stockist distribution network across the country.

Such timely interventions, industry players say, are capable of bridging the gaping deficit by even up to a half, a fact which would be a major leap in giving the country an alternative staple in times of maize shortage which has become endemic in the country. “We spotted first hand how dangerous this trend was going after our field officers spent time with farmers in Narok. We decided to step in and we have been glad to notice wheat farms flourishing,” said Nelson Maina Head of Communication at Elgon Kenya Ltd.