News and knowhow for farmers

Kenya’s bread stays foreign on local wheat challenges from bird attacks to subsidized imports


By Brian Moseti

Every year, Kenyans consume about 2 million tonnes of wheat, almost all of which is eaten as bread and pastries, according to the 2020 Economic Survey from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Yet the country’s farmers only produce 348,000 tonnes, with the rest of the country’s bread and cake made from imported wheat that comes in from all over the world.

Thus, whilst local wheat production is predicted to increase to 500,000 tonnes this year, the country’s millers will still have to overcome restrictions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic to bring in over a million tonnes of wheat from countries like Egypt, Tanzania, Russia, Ukraine and Australia.

So, with more than enough land for agricultural production, why is the country still only producing 17 per cent of its second-most staple food after maize?

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Benjamin Oloo, who farms in Narok, said often, variables beyond farmers’ control lead to harvest losses that reduce the overall output.

“In 2019, we had a great crop, but just before harvest, the farms were invaded by quelea birds, which ate almost half of the produce,” he said. Each quelea bird consumes about 10g of seeds per day and, last year, an estimated 15million birds invaded farms in Narok counties, overwhelming farmers and government support services as they remained resilient against chemical sprays.

“With such damage, it becomes untenable to farm the crop as the harvests we received only yielded Sh3,000 worth of wheat against a total production expenditure of over Sh40,000 per acre,” said Shadrack Kotun, another wheat farmer.

In previous seasons, wheat farmers in Narok and other parts of Rift Valley, the country’s breadbasket, have had to contend with variable weather that has often caused a lack of sufficient rain during the production season. Most of the country’s wheat cultivation is rainfed meaning that any changes in seasons translate into low or no harvests.

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“There was a time when the weather was completely predictable, and farmers knew how to time their production for optimum harvests. However, with time, and because of the effects of climate change, a season could start really well, but immediately after sprouting a dry spell hits the land, damaging the crop,” said agronomist Benson Lemayian.

However, the biggest drivers pushing farmers away from wheat cultivation are the final prices. This is because millers find it cheaper to source cereals and other food from neighbouring countries like Tanzania, where the cost of production is heavily subsidised by the government, which allows farmers to sell their harvests at much lower prices than their Kenyan counterparts.

“It is tough to compete with people who have access to cheap fertilisers, seeds and labour. Because millers can import from anywhere they wish, we are sometimes left without a market for our products or sell it at a loss,” said Conceptor Makori, a wheat farmer in Kitale.

For most of the farmers who have abandoned wheat farming, the answer has been a shift to barley and sorghum, which now have an assured market thanks to contract farming deals with East African Maltings Limited (EAML), which produces malt for the brewing units of East African Breweries Limited (EABL).

EAML contracts assure farmers of a market at the end of the season, in addition to input loans and extension services during the planting season. The malt company, for instance, pre-finances contracted farmers to the tune of Sh500m a year for high yielding seed, fertiliser and other farm inputs on credit, which is recovered at the end of the harvest season.

“To be honest, such deals make more sense as you do not have to gamble with market forces after going through the entire production cycle. This is besides the production support provided,” said Makori, who is now contemplating a sorghum cultivation deal with EAML and set to be just one more exit from Kenyan wheat production.

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