Most farmlands in Kitui have for a long time remained unfit for agriculture, being at best merely a grazing area for livestock but today, the landscape is more picturesque and productive, as farmers shift to irrigation.
Three kilometres East of Kitui town, on the sprawling plains of Kunguluni village along River Nzeeu in Kyangwithya East Ward in Kitui Central, lies a farm lined with golden stalks of maturing rice.
Richard Musyoka, has soaked himself into uncharted waters of rice farming, a preserve for farmers in Embu and parts of Nyanza where there are swamps.
Speaking to the press at his farm on Monday, Musyoka said that his pilot farm has grown a newly-developed rice variety, one that is high yielding and resistant to drought.
“As a result, smallholder farming families are realizing harvests on farmlands once considered too poor to cultivate, to contribute to the country’s social and economic growth. Rice contributes substantially to food security, poverty reduction and employment creation,” he said.
Musyoka observed that drought-resistant crop varieties can diversify livelihoods and improve food security, provided seed supply is adequate and farming practices are appropriate.
“I ventured into rice farming by chance. With the technical assistance of a water engineer, I devised ways to irrigate my farmland using water from the seasonal River Nzeeu that flows nearby. I am looking forward to a bumper harvest,” he said amid chuckles.
The farmer, notes that so far, his debut in rice farming has not posed serious challenges to him as he weeds his lush green wonder crop, among the first in Kitui’s dry farmlands.
The pilot project is closely monitored by Water Engineer Martin Kasina, who has been instrumental in ensuring that Musyoka is successful in dryland rice farming.
“I started with two varieties of rice; an uplands variety known as Nerica and Basmati 370 commonly known as Pishori. At 90 days after sowing, the crops are doing well,” said.
Kasina, a Senior Researcher at the National Irrigation Authority based at Mwea Irrigation Scheme has played a pivotal role towards the success of the project.
The farmer says at first he was hesitant to venture into rice farming but the encouragement from the expert pushed him to give it a shot.
He soon realized it was not as difficult as he thought, having been brought to think that rice can only be grown in flooded areas.
Musyoka says that in the past he used to grow vegetables most of which would go to waste when the supply in the market exceeded the demand.
Engineer Kasina says that after years of research in Mwea and with new technologies such as water-saving rice culture borrowed from Japan and Thailand, studies had shown that rice can also be successfully grown with reduced amounts of water.
This is the knowledge he wanted to bring home and change the local farmers’ perspective from traditional cereal crops such as maize to high-value cereal crops such as rice.
“We wanted to diversify from maize and chose a high-value cereal crop.”
Since they lacked the requisite farm machinery such as tractors to till the land, the farmer and his technical assistant engaged manual labourers to prepare the farm into sizable plots which were then leveled to allow for holding of water.
The rice was first planted in a nursery bed and then transplanted to the plots at 21 days, water is pumped from a shallow well dug at the bed of the seasonal River Nzeeu using a motorized water pump onto the farms.
Rice farming being a new venture in Kitui County, some chemicals and even fertilizers are not locally available and have to be sourced from Embu town.
Scarecrows have also been erected to ward off quelea birds, which have a huge appetite for Pishori grains.
Kasina notes that soils in Kitui County are fertile and with the use of seasonal rivers, rice farming can be the next commercial frontier for local farmers.
The duo says with the encouragement from other local farmers who have shown willingness to venture into commercial rice farming, their future plan is to upscale the project and add more acreage under rice irrigation.
He says part of their plans is to invest in a mill to be able to produce and package the white rice, thus giving the local farmers all the benefits
Musyoka, says that getting local production of rice variety will be the ultimate pride of the Kitui farmer
Benjamin Ngatho, the patron of Itambya Self-Help Group, has taken keen interest in rice farming after seeing the steps taken through the pilot project.
Ngatho is convinced that rice farming is a viable venture in Kitui and also plans to dedicate several acres of his land along the river to rice farming.
“Our plan is to put up a sand dam and raise water volume for rice farming. The way we are embracing it, in the next five years, it will be a venture that can give us good money. It is doable,” says Ngatho
Faith Kiema, a member of the Self-Help Group and the Founder of Kitui Women in Development says that women, being the majority small holder farmers at household level have a lot to learn from the project which can easily give them financial empowerment.