Hundreds of farmers in Kenya’s Rift Valley province are switching from staple cereals to coffee that is more profitable—a move likely to increase the country’s dependence on grain imports and possibly affects food security in a negative way.
Coffee Managing Services (CMS) has constructed a coffee milling plant in Eldoret town at the cost of 0.5 million U.S. dollars. CMS Managing Director Kamau Kuria says the facility would cut down the cost of transportation incurred by the farmers as they transport the crop to Ruiru and Thika in Central province. Kuria said the new coffee milling plant, with an annual capacity of 10,000 metric tons which commenced operations last month is expected to serve coffee farmers in the West of the Rift Valley within a radius of 150 kms.
“The farmers would access information on good agricultural practice and be able to obtain services as coffee quality analysis, besides the provision of employment opportunities to area residents,” said Kuria.
It is evident that several farmers in Uasin Gishu and Trans- Nzoia Counties are putting their land under coffee production after frustrations from the maize growing business.
“It is worthless to use our land for crops giving us poor returns despite spending much in production,” argued Matanda Wabuyela, a leading coffee grower and seedling provider in Western Kenya.
Kenya has to import 2.3 million tons of cereal during the 2011- 2012 marketing year to meet demand, a year-on-year increase of 37 percent, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, which estimated domestic harvests of maize, a staple for 90 percent of Kenyans, at 2.5 million tons, down 18 percent because of poor weather.
“The Rift Valley is the country’s granary, it is where most people get their food from. Increased coffee growing could compromise the country’s grain basket,” warned an Agricultural Officer in Trans-Nzoia County who declined to be named.
“If we lose significant land in the province to coffee, we have to weigh what we gain in the process. If coffee pays better and farmers can by investing in inputs improve the yield of maize crop in the acreage they put under maize, perhaps this could be the trade-off,” the official said, recommending that the government undertake a feasibility study on the implications of expanding coffee production in the Rift Valley.
Officials in the region are yet to establish how much former cereal-growing land in the province is now used to produce coffee. But in Trans Nzoia, the area under maize cultivation has fallen by 450 hectares over the last year, according to Joseph Ling’ang’a, the Trans-Nzoia West agricultural officer. Across the province, areas of coffee cultivation grew by an annual 20 percent over the past two years, said Bonface Wekesa, manager of a new milling plant in the town of Eldoret.
“We have distributed over one million seedlings of coffee over the last one year and have even run short as the current demand stands at double what we have distributed to farmers,” Wekesa said, explaining that typically 2,200 seedlings would be planted on each hectare of land.
Coffee offers much better returns to farmers at a time when traditional coffee-growing areas in the center of the country have been greatly reduced by real-estate developments.
“Farmers in Rift Valley have been growing a lot of cereals to feed the nation while their pockets are left empty. It is their time to fill their pockets with income from the same farms. Maybe it’s time the government started massive irrigation in arid and semi-arid areas,” said Dr James Kimemia, Director with Coffee Research Foundation (CRF).
John Kisaka, a farmer and Big Tree in Rift Valley’s Trans-Nzoia County said, “I have planted coffee in 15 out of my 27 acres and I still require more seedlings to plant in eight more acres and reserve four acre to plant maize for family consumption.”
He argues that maize growing is a frustrating venture due poor prices despite the high cost of production. “The cost of inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and land preparation is unaffordable and yet the price for the crop is discouraging,” he lamented.
For those earning from coffee growing, the return is overwhelming and have no regrets of moving from maize production. Dr. Chris Wamalwa, a don at the Nairobi University, said although coffee’s growing popularity could reduce cereal production, it would not affect people’s access to food, at least in the province.
“These farmers can use the proceeds from coffee to buy food. It does not mean they would be food insecure,” argued Wamalwa.
“Maize has been imported even when local farmers have their granaries full, let the farmers grow what suits their pockets best. This import dependency and the threat posed by increased coffee growing could be mitigated with the use of improved inputs by cereal growers,” he said.
The don noted that maize farmers lack storage facilities and some 30 percent of production is lost. A draft of Kenya’s land-use policy has been submitted to parliament and has yet to be debated for subsequent enactment.