In a cutting expose, we illuminated how the honest work of the small scale farmer in mulembe is disenfranchised by NCPB cartels . An enterprise consisting of middlemen, traders and pliant government officials whose choke-hold on this public utility of strategic national interest serves nothing but the narrow, selfish aims of a few. Today, we go further learning from the experience of a small scale Bukusu farmer lady with a passion for farming; and more importantly, whose story is a window into the frustrations of farmers.
I am a privileged. Privileged because I married well and my people are blessed with tracts of land for till. Privileged as my mother taught me well. Thanks to mayi’s tough love, I am alike any Bukusu woman worth their mettle: I shy not from the jembe. It therefore saddens me when, despite of all this good fortune, I struggle to school my children from the work of my hands as a farmer – as mum and dad did. A desperate, disparate situation best captured by this Bukusu proverb: embako sebea ta. The jembe does not lie. By sharing my story, I seek to at least tickle the interest of babami ba mulembe in the hope of a secure future for our children.
For the small scale Bukusu maize farmer, it’s downhill from the moment they pick up the jembe
My husband and I have been tilling the farm for half a decade thereabouts. All this while, we have faced numerous challenges. The most of vexing of the psychological toil of farming in Western Kenya has to be the quagmire of securing access to markets for our produce.
Like any other crop, harvest time is the most crucial time for a maize farmer. This is because unlike tilling time where you can correct poor tilling by re-ploughing; correction measures for any mishaps at this late stage are scanty.
I cannot count the number of times my produce has been rained on at harvest time. Many times, I have had to temporarily stop harvesting so as to try and salvage my produce. Respite here I have come to learn, is found by prompt shelling and then sun drying the rained on maize. Mind you, all this is often in unpredictable weather and almost always handicapped by limited funds.
Where are maize drying services to bail out a small timer like me who can’t afford such expensive farm machinery?
Where is my government to walk with us farmers at such critical moments as we endeavor to feed the nation?
That has been my cry, and the cry of many farmers, during such periods. But more on this later. First, there is the little matter of farm preparation and planting.
An arm and a leg for the Small Scale Bukusu Farmer, just to get the Farm Ready
I have lost count of the number of sleepless nights spent out in the cold tilling, planting and weeding. The faulty tractors that most of us small scale farmers hire at exorbitant rates ( it costs an average of 4,000 shillings to till an acre) from third parties during the various stages of land preparation almost always invariably suffer breakdowns.
Caught in the thick of things, bad weather and all, It often bogs my mind: Surely, can’t the Bungoma County CEC for agriculture budget a few million shillings for tractors? It would set the county government back just about the cost of their taxpayer funded air conditioned SUVs. Besides, farmers seek no charity. We will offset part of the acquisition cost by hiring the tractors to prepare farms.
out on a limb in need of agricultural extension services
Still, however crucial farm machinery is, the answer to the troubles faced by the Bukusu small scale maize farmer does not lie in simple purchase of agricultural machinery. Nonetheless, imagine that we have the earth turning beasts in place. What next you might wonder? Well, we will surely need a way to make them work for everyone, scarce resources and all.
I imagine a situation where the agricultural extension officer maps all the farmers in the area. Once done with, together we can come up with a schedule for timely tilling, planting and spraying of the farms in the area. I reiterate: we seek not charity nor subsidy. Farmers are willing to pay for this service. The problem is not the cost, but rather the way we, custodians of a critical pillar of the nation’s sovereignty, are left to our own designs to battle threats.
Just this past season, we’ve had to battle the army worm invasion literally alone. Every farmer for himself. Every farmer with their own home remedy concoction of insecticides. Needless to say, most of us lost this battle and left it all to Wele. Indeed, what we harvested at the end of eight months of toil was what was what Wele said was ‘ours’.
A needless situation this is. With such an arrangement — where farmers are backed by agricultural extension officers a` la how community health workers work with healthcare providers at the dispensary– the Bukusu small scale farmer should also contribute to the prosperity of Mulembe Nation.
This is because agricultural extension officers could also be tasked with collecting much needed data required to inform government efforts at mitigating post harvest losses as well as other agricultural risks.
This all sounds like a good plan, but the question begs: What ever happened ever to agricultural officers?
I know of a cousin who studied an agricultural course at the local polytechnic, driven by youthful dreams of becoming one. Sad that she now serves clients of a popular mobile money transfer service from a green coffin-like cube in Webuye town. Now that here, those motorcycles that the government keeps ramming down the throats of chiefs and assistant chiefs, how wonderful would it be if we hired more agricultural extension officers and similarly equip them?
Enough of the government bashing for now, lets dig into the gory details of the woes of maize farmers in Western Kenya.
The reluctant slave driver: The horrors of handling farm hand labor
I have had good and bad times with the farm laborers. I endeavor to be patient in our dealings. This is because deep down, I acknowledge that I should be able to pay them better, but the truth is that I can least afford it. These things have a way of coming full circle. The prize I get for my produce is dampened by cheap maize imports. That denies me any room to wiggle on payments of whichever kind. Consider the following:
As it stands, it costs approximately 40,000 Kenya shillings to tend for an acre of maize to maturity. This acre yields a paltry 15 to 20 bags. The math informs that it’s suicide for a farmer to sell their produce for anything less than 2500 per 90 kg bag, just to break even. Yet, the competition, ‘Ugandan’ maize mostly, comes in at 1800 to 2000 Kenya shillings per 90 kg bag. As low as 900 per bag am told.
On the other hand, the casual labor I hire expect me to wafuta vizuri at the end of the day. Otherwise, there\’s little chance of them ever feeding their families. Wa Kwetu, paying jobs are scanty in the village.
Often, I have entire clans working on the farm for me — from granddad, to son, to daughter-in-law — however inappropriate it might be culturally. But what can they do? If we don’t till these farms, they, like the 40% of Kenyans, 70% of rural folk, employed by agriculture will be out of work. Babami, that’s the burden we bear. Please do something!
Then, the T.K.O move, enter the blood letting privately contracted agricultural services providers
Allow me to introduce a third player in the life of a small scale Bukusu farmer. This one is the sewage rat of the lot. No different from the first tick to latch on the cow, suck its blood, reproduce and bear minions that continue the blood letting. I talk of the jua kali agricultural service provider.
I can’t keep count of the number of times service providers have stood me up. Transporters hired to ferry harvested maize from the farm to the storehouse often fail to show up. Or show up late, holding the farmer at ransom in order to up the price agreed on earlier midway through moving the consignment. There are tractor owners who have done a shoddy job ploughing and then dispersed into thin air.
I label them vermin for a compounded reason: how they levy their charges. First, their is no standard rate. What you get charged for services rendered depends on all manner of things. From your gender, tribe, to what their skewed mental calculations inform them of how many bags of harvest you’ll get from your piece.
Farm Extension Services
Secondly, all that troublesomeness and yet they add no real value. Ni kulima na kuenda. If they offer advice, it is hard to vouch for its viability nor its applicability to your situation. Once again, I am reminded of my cousin Nakhumicha, in that green box wasting her dreams in exchange for a steady below minimum wage.
Nakhumicha is a tough girl with long arms used to khuamba embako ye chikhafu. Strong bones that can turn that tractor steering wheel even if its power steering fluid is leaking. I have no doubt that she would be an improvement from the Changaa types we have to contend with. Nakhumicha daughter of mayi Redempta has got valuable agricultural knowledge imparted by mayi Redempta. More, her acumen has been re-calibrated, fine tuned and modernized by mwalimu Opati at the village polytechnic.
Picking up from where we let off earlier, the script of heartless, scant value agricultural service producers continues albeit with just a change in the actors. Pilferage is a common challenge at this stage. There is theft of produce from hired hands. Then there are already incurred losses from theft and sale of green maize. Wa kwetu, losing dry maize on the cob is bearable; you cannot recover if your shelled maize is stolen.
By the time a farmer heads to the granary, what remains of their toil is often less than 50% of expected harvest. That is before, ndovu andweevils descend on this measly loot. Lets not even talk of the expected decrease in quality of harvest as the maize that was rained on during harvesting, that you had labored at great cost and little success to salvage, defies your efforts and gets discolored. Notwithstanding, the good maize that turned muozo when ‘stakes’ collapse in the deluge of rain during harvest season. Once in contact with the ground, the maize cobs suck up moisture leading to grain rotting from the \’heart\’.
Mzigo wa punda
I wear my hair mowed down. Many assume this do to be a smart move informed by the demands of my job. Only that they are dead wrong. It has to do with the desisting from having to pluck it off the roots once at the NCPB depots. What the farmer encounters at NCPB depots after such a sojourn in hell laboring to feed the nation and educate my young ones is cruel.
Heading to the depots after such a rough ride with the weather, agricultural services providers, farm hands and an aloof government, the Bukusu in me embraces this stupid notion that the Kenyan government owes me big time.
For I have bought its seed and fertilizer earning the government agency income, helping it fulfill its obligation, and by extension the state’s obligation to it’s citizenry. I have meddled in the dreaded bottom of the pyramid by employing hundreds of Kenyans with little or no skills. The service providers I have engaged have employed people and contributed to the tax basket through consumption tax. Moreover I have shouldered shocks on my own, from theft to pets.
Battle weary, bruised and in debt, fantastical me expects the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) silo manager to meet me with a broad smile and a long gentle hug. Congratulate me for the good job done when I show up at the gate with my produce. Only not.
The final nail on the coffin: Reliving the horror awaiting your typical small scale Bukusu farmer at NCPB depots
Instead, it is the opposite. Seriously, I ain’t at pains figuring out where these government employees get inducted. They are alike any other: rude, disinterested, angry at you for seeking services that you’ve paid for through your taxes.
Typical scenario: Walk into an office and ask to see person Xyz. You ask for Xyz because the guard at the gate was categorical that Xyz would be of help given your query. So there you are asking for Xyz and the politest response you get is a peer above reading glasses. One trick I\’ve come to learn is that the one who questions you the hardest : “Unamtakia nini ? ” or “Unamwona hapa?” isn’t the person of interest. Person Xyz is the one who is ‘so busy’ to even look up.
Now that the target has been identified, you shouldn’t celebrate because the moment they open their mouths, you wish they rather didn’t say anything at all. Demeaning. Condescending. Mean.
Hardened by long days under the scorch of the sun drying your produce, you somehow overcome all this and state why you are there. You want a sample of your produce taken for analysis. Cue: enter the lab guys. Men, I tell you the lab officers head the pack of mean. Take in all that ugliness and you have to cox then to do their work.
The demeanor of your typical lab guy is one of who doesn’t know what’s expected of them. Undeterred, you line your tongue with pleasantries and in your politest voice and least threatening pose, make your request. Barely looking at you, the interrogator- in – chief types away on the PC with the index finger of their dominant hand as the barrage of condescending questions rains on.
This is a common ploy designed to confuse the often meek Bukusu small scale farmer. A ploy intended to make you give up and leave. Clear the lines for the real MVPs. Step aside peasant, usher in the real ” maize farmers”. I say so as this treatment is only for the peasant farmers like us. Not the cartels.
Anatomy of NCPB cartels
The process of selling maize to the national strategic grain reserves should follow a pattern somewhat like this one. You get there, samples are picked for analysis, you get a report, weigh and await the cheque if your produce makes the cut.
Not if you are part of the cartel where it matters little the quality of your produce.
It could as well be high in moisture content or diseased, damaged and discolored. If you have the in on the going ons, you get to pick your own samples for analysis. Your loot is known by the number plate of the truck. As soon as your truck parks by the gates, it is expedited service.
One time I walked in on one cartel member holding a closed door meeting with all NCPB employees. I kept wondering what it is they could have been discussing? Why I was not invited to this meeting if it was meant for all suppliers? What power!
From me to you with love: Lessons for every Small Scale Bukusu Farmer
After all the hard work, my produce was rejected on technicalities. I was misleadingly advised to have it held within the NCPB premises to correct the error (moisture content). Bad mistake. I later learned that once your produce is rejected its treated like a marked animal. It seldom gets accepted. All the time and money a farmer spends sun drying or hiring hands to pick the discolored and damaged grains is all a waste.
Even after a week long of labor drying, my produce was still rejected. All this while, my produce had been offloaded on the NCPB grounds. Outside there, it was at risk from weather elements and theft (which I suffered as close to 50 percent of my produce went missing on the other side of the weekend).
I had been informed that there was no space within the stores to temporarily hold my produce. So I had to do with their ‘charity’ and have it held outside the stores, a location where the board held no responsibility for.
Latter, I came to learn that all the storage space within NCPB silos had been let out to the cartels. I do get the ‘first come, first served’ mantra. And the principle of ‘willing buyer and seller’. But should it not tickle one’s conscious when such a critical public asset is concentrated in the hands of a few? Especially if it bestows them such undue competitive advantage?
The unfairness of the situation is best exemplified by this happening this one Friday. I witnessed five trailers delivering maize one morning. Each trailer was laden with approximately 1000 bags. With NCPB was buying a 90kg bag at Ksh 3,200 that morning the cartels must have delivered approximately 5,000 bags of maize.
And they were not done. By close of business, the cartel had trailers and lorries lined up ready to offload in the morning. Their loads of maize already ‘analyzed’ and certified fit.
Where did these individuals (two actually) grow this astronomical amount of maize? This question is hard to answer given that poor farming practices have seen to it that the average yield of Kenyan farms is something like twenty, twenty five bags an acre.
Twenty Odd Years
Curious to learn, I asked one loader the same question. By the way, aside from me and the ladies I had employed to hand pick discolored grain from my harvest, loaders were the only other locals at the depot. He answered: “ Hawa watu wamekuwa hapa kwa miaka zaidi ya ishirini kwa hii biashara. Wananunua mahindi kutoka Uganda na kuuza hapa.“
So the government of Kenya is abetting the purchase of maize from Uganda, whilst frustrating Kenyan farmers not to sell their produce to NCPB?
So who will protect me if the government doesn’t care? I felt angry and jealous at the same time. I kept asking myself why? Why are my taxes enriching our Ugandan brothers? At my expense? Defeated, I choked on anger as I daze walked to town to find a lorry to take my produce back home.
That walk was a painful one as all the evilness of the workings of the maize cartels finally dawned on me. I’m not a very religious person, but at that moment I remembered my rosary. In desperate earnest, I prayed to the litany of saints as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Having not taken a meal the whole day, the pangs of hunger served to remind me of the bleak future my children, our children faced. As I headed out, at this NCPB depot’s entrance was a steadily growing list of trucks and trailers. You could clearly hear conversations between proprietors and transporters. None of them was a local. Where does the Bukusu small scale farmer like me sell their produce? How do we earn our keep and educate our young ones?
Disenfranchised: Role of Mbukusu at NCPB
Outside the gate, I met a second Bukusu, lets call him Jairus. He offered to boda me on his bicycle to town. We settled on a price off we went. I was quiet the better part of the journey. He let me be. But when I finished my prayer, I broke the silence and tried to pick his brain.
I sought to find out why there are no Bukusus selling maize in this particular depot. Jirus was candid. He shared his frustrations and this crushed my spirit further. But I kept quiet to avoid a pity party.
He said that the only job Bukusus do in NCPB is to carry 90kgs bags on their heads/shoulders. If they were not slaving there, they would be doing what he was doing: boda work. Bukusu women had also been reduced to providing cheap labor like winnowing or picking discolored rotten maize for a daily wage of Ksh 200-300.
The educated ones he told me, were the gatekeepers of the cartels, and dared not challenge the order lest they lose their keep. Worse, he offered, given that NCPB was a national government parastatal, the county government could only look the other side as local farmers got frustrated.
He challenged me to go dig into the list of those farmers who had picked fertilizer from the NCPB depot vs the list of those supplying maize. Any keen eye would pick out the games being played. This report in a regional weekly daily that I recently came across only serves to back up his claims. Kenya Farmers Association (KFA) director Kipkorir Arap Menjo on the situation
These middlemen are just taking advantage of the common market protocol to import low-cost maize. They are paying as low as $18.4 for a 90 kilogram bag and then blending it with the local produce. This is finding its way into the NCPB silos which is paying $32 for a similar bag. This puts farmers at a disadvantage.
And to think that the jembe is all what our parents left us. That our factories are dead, the returns on education diminishing with every passing day and that huge swatches of my country Kenya are starving, I can only lament: Oh, what a time to be a small scale Bukusu farmer!