Sitting next to a wooden structure nestled among bushy palm trees of Jarajara, Garissa County, Hassan Yunis, 70, deeps his hand in a basket full of rice, scoops some and carefully examines it to check if it has husks.
Yunis engages in the exercise as he whiles away time. The septuagenarian is among farmers growing rice under irrigation in the district.
Two decades ago, the old man reminisces, goats, camels and cattle wondered freely across the rolling plains of Jarajara browsing herbs. Pasture was not a major problem.
However, frequent droughts have made goat and camel rearing unprofitable, prompting the switch.
“Pastoralism is no longer profitable, pushing many to rice,” says Yunis, whose 20 camels died of famine in 2011, which was his turning point.
Most of the land in Jarajara, about 150km from Garissa town, is virgin and, therefore, supports crop farming well. Even though the area is dry and arid, River Tana has made rice growing under the paddy method possible.
Over 50 farmers are cultivating the pishori and basmati varieties for consumption and for sale, with a 50kg bag going for Sh5,500.
“We experienced some challenges when starting but farmers are now reaping the benefits. For instance, some farmers did not want to uproot grass from the rice fields claiming that it was fodder for their cattle but we have overcome all that,” says Abdikadir Soye, an agricultural extension officer working with the farmers.
Paddy rice cultivation is done under varied climatic conditions and soil types ranging from loamy to black cotton soil, but a lot of water is needed for irrigation.
REGAL-IR, a USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture project, which is supporting the initiative, sent 25 farmers from Jarajara to Mwea Rice Irrigation Scheme to learn the new skills.
The farmers returned to implement the irrigation project sometime in 2011.
“We currently have more than 65 acres under rice. Every farmer owns at least an acre in the scheme,” notes Yunis, who is also the chairman of Jarajara Rice Farmers.
Habiba Mohammed, a mother of six, says she gets not less than 10 50kg bags of the cereal from an acre.
“I also make hay from the rice stalks, which I sell at Sh300 a bale,” she says, adding market is not a challenge as rice has a huge demand in the region.
She spends Sh3,000 to hire workers, prepare the field by hand, as tractors are not readily available, and plant.
Water flows by gravity from the river to the farms.
Adan Keynan, Jarajara chief, says they constructed a 19km long canal that channels Tana waters to the rice farm.
“We ventured into rice farming because of the huge market. About 80 per cent of our community depends on rice as a staple,” says Keynan, who is also a rice farmer.
Rice is the third most important cereal in the country after maize and wheat.
There are four National Irrigation Board (NIB) run rice schemes across the country. They include Mwea, which accounted for 78 per cent of the irrigated area in the country and 88 per cent of production between 2005 and 2010, according to NIB data. The other three are Ahero, Bunyala and West Kano in western Kenya.
To grow rice, Habiba explains that seeds are placed in a gunny bag, and then soaked in water for two days to break dormancy.
“You then remove the bag and put it in the sun for four days,” explains Habiba, who grows rice on two acres of the scheme that dates back to 1972 but poor management had seen it shutdown.
The seeds will start to germinate while in the bag after about four days. Thereafter, the germinating seedlings should be taken to a nursery where they will stay for a month before being transplant to the paddy fields.
The cereal is harvested after four months, sun dried and then hulled. Unlike maize, which is milled once to remove the husk, rice is hulled twice.
“Rice farming is transforming our livelihoods. I earn about Sh60,000 from an acre per harvest,” says Habiba, explaining that she uses the money to educate her children.
The dreams of Jarajara rice farmers to add value to their produce received a major boost recently after the Garissa County government and REGAL-IR installed a miller that processes about 1,000kg of the produce per hour. This is expected to increase the quantity of rice available for sale.
“Plans are underway to improve packaging of rice produced. We also hope to sell to establish retailers in and outside Garissa,” Saphia Omar, the county executive in-charge of agriculture, livestock and irrigation.