How Sh. 2.5 million loss crashed my farming dream

Farming Problems in Kenya: In October 2014, George Otanga’s farm water-logged, looked like a rice paddy infested with tall, healthy grass for as far as the eye can see.

Nonetheless, his farm was not a rice field or marshy wasteland. Rather, it was the investment that George, a 54-year-old farmer in Ekiropo Location of Teso South Sub-County in Busia County had made.

In fact, Otanga was expecting a few million shillings by end of October 2014 from the sunflower and soybean project on the farm, and into which he had ploughed much of his retirement benefits. You see, his 40-acre leased farm in which he grows sunflowers (10 acres) and soybeans (30 acres) had been flooded following heavy rains in Busia County.

“I planted 300kg of soybeans and 36kg of sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds go for Sh330 a kilo,” he says. He spent Sh300,000 to plough and plant the crops on land that he had leased for Sh120,000 a year. Otanga had expected to harvest 1,000 50kg bags of soybeans and 450 50kg bags of sunflower, as he did from his bumper harvest in 2013.

He had intercropped the legumes with sorghum, expecting to harvest another 40 bags of the grain. But all this has been literally swept away by raging floods following heavy rains.

Instead of the profits he had anticipated, George hit a Sh. 2.5 million mega loss. “I have burned my fingers. In 2013 when I started this project, things were good but this time I will not harvest anything,” says the former air traffic controller, who opted for early retirement in 2012 to venture into large-scale commercial farming. Most of the land in Teso is fallow, therefore, leasing is cheaper.

“Leasing an acre costs Sh3,000 annually. I had leased the land at Sh120,000 a year for six years.” Last year, he harvested 1,000 50kg bags of soybeans and 400 bags of sunflower. “I sold the produce through a broker. I sold each kilo of soybeans at Sh50. There is good business in the two crops as they fetch good returns,” says Otanga, who worked for 15 years in the airline industry.

Before the floods, the farmer was seeking to deal directly with companies that buy the produce in order to get higher returns.  “I had not expected the loss to be this big ,” says Otanga, who lives in Nairobi and has 10 workers on the farm.

He says he went into sunflower and soybean farming because the crops fetch good prices. Soybean is a versatile crop that is used to make edible oils and animal feeds. It is also used to make milk, flour and protein supplements, among other products.

On the farm, it can be intercropped with others to boost nitrogen and soil fertility. The crop, according to Otanga, requires less agro-inputs such as fertilisers for optimum production. “Soybeans mature between three and five months, depending on the soil and weather conditions. I planted mine in June 2014.” Sunflower is used to make edible oils and animal feeds. A kilo of sunflower seeds produce up to 10 50kg bags of the produce.

About 4kg of sunflower seeds produce a litre of oil. Sunflower thrives in warm to hot weather conditions with full sunshine during the day. The soil should be slightly acidic, with a pH of between six and 7.5. The crops should be planted 30 inches apart to allow space for the branches to spread out.

To know whether the crop is ready for harvesting, the head turns brown at the back. This happens about 30 to 45 days after bloom. At this time, seed moisture is about 35 per cent. “Since last year, I have been consulting agricultural extension officers and was assured of a good harvest this time round,” says Otanga.

Caleb Omondi, an agricultural officer in Busia, says the area is flat and whenever it rains, water from the hills drain into the plains. “The main crops grown here are tobacco, maize, rice, cassava, millet and sorghum. Sunflowers and soybeans are new, but they, too, do well. This year we have had slightly heavy rains that have destroyed many farms.”

Omondi says the county is working with farmers to construct canals on their farms to control flooding. While this is good news for Otanga and his fellow farmers, they have been advised to insure their crops against the vagaries of nature like floods.

Insurance firms have tailor-made products for both animal and crop farmers. The crops are insured against windstorms, frost, floods and uncontrollable pests which include birds and wild animals.

Gilbert Nyagwaya, the head of Agriculture Insurance at Kenya Orient Insurance, says they cover sorghum, coffee, tea, tomatoes, bananas and fruits.

“We insure the crops based on the cost of production or expected yield rate and yield guarantee at 7.5 per cent and 65 per cent respectively.

“If a complete loss occurs within the growing season and replanting is not possible, the loss is processed and the insured farmer is compensated immediately.”

On the other hand, if the crop can give some yields after the misfortune, loss adjustment is delayed until after harvesting to determine the actual yield.

The farmer is compensated the difference between the insured yield and the achieved yield.

Prof Mathews Dida, of Maseno University’s School of Agriculture and Food Security, says any serious farmer should embrace crop insurance, particularly due to climate change, which has resulted in erratic weather.

Prof Dida notes floods, drought and disease outbreaks like that of the Maize Lethal Necrosis have become common, making insurance an urgent requirement for the farmer.

“A farmer who is insured is better off than the one, who is not covered. The problem, however, is that the cost of insurance is still high.”

He urges smallholder farmers to assess their farms keenly and know the history of an area before leasing and planting.

“Many small-scale farmers cannot procure insurance on their own because of high costs, but county governments can help. They can partner with insurance firms to save farmers from the agony of post-harvest losses and production costs,” says Kisumu County Chamber of Commerce Executive Member Israel Agina.

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