Young farmers in Kenya shun maize growing, go for horticulture crops

NAIROBI, August 1 (Xinhua) — Maize, the staple consumed by millions of Kenyans, is steadily losing its appeal among the young as a farming crop.
Young farmers in the East African nation are totally shunning the crop as challenges of growing it and selling the grain increase year-in, year-out. Instead, the young farmers including those in breadbasket areas of Western and Rift Valley are embracing high-value crops like tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, capsicum lettuce and those for exports that include French beans and sugar snap peas. The staple is now being farmed mainly by old farmers, many who have sentimental attachment to the crop handed over to them by their forefathers. The latest challenge to the growing of maize this season is Fall Armyworms, which farmers are currently battling with mixed success raising their production costs two-fold.
The pest follows the maize necrosis crisis, which farmers battled for close to two years as the fungal disease ravaged acres upon acres of the crop. Scientists had managed to come up with seeds that are resistant to the disease, which a good number of farmers are currently growing. Then there is the problem of erratic rains, which have consistently disappointed farmers for the last three years leading to heavy losses. Besides the three, market for the commodity has become a great challenge for farmers due to poor prices, mainly as a result of increased imports from neighbouring countries. Kenya is set to import up to 5 million bags of maize by the end of August to increase supply, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, a move that will see the flooding of the market, leading to low prices by September when farmers start harvesting.  The myriad of challenges have become a turnoff for many young farmers seeking to live off farming or who are doing it alongside their daily jobs. “I planted maize on three acres for two seasons and gave up because it was a frustrating experience. The first time I had a good harvest, but prices were very poor including those offered by the government that I hardly made any income yet I had spent over 1,000 U.S. dollars,” Godfrey Isanya, 29, who farms in Trans Nzoia County, said Tuesday.
The second season saw Isanya’s maize affected by the lethal necrosis diseases making him harvest less than half of what he had planted. “I could not take it anymore because most of what was affecting my crop was beyond my control, from weather to diseases and market. I decided to switch to vegetables, growing cabbages and tomatoes and occasionally beans,” he said. Isanya currently has close to 2,000 cabbage plants which he has grown on an acre under irrigation, and on another part of the farm he grows tomatoes.  “I no longer depend on rain since I pump my water from a nearby river, store it in a tank and irrigate my farm using the drip system. This way I do not have any worries that my crops will dry due to failure of the rains,” he said, noting he sells a head of cabbage for between 0.40 dollars and 0.50 dollars depending on market forces and size.
When he was growing maize, Isanya would harvest some 50 bags from the three acres and sell each at an average of 25 dollars. If I do the maths right now, I am ashamed of myself since I was operating on a loss yet I called myself an agriprenuer. Currently I am not even using half of the farm yet I am making more money. ” Interestingly, his 58-year-old father still grows the crop and has refused to embrace any other despite seeing his son’s change of fortunes. Vincent Kariuki, who grows tomatoes and capsicums on an acre with his two friends in Juja on the outskirts of Nairobi, says young people are going for high-value crops because they mature faster and are high paying.    “As a young person, I know that if I want to make money in farming, then I should not grow a crop that government has influence over it like maize. We have never heard that we have tomato shortage then the government imports tonnes of the produce to boost supply,” he said. Kariuki, a banker, noted that many young farmers are impatient with crops like maize which take seven months to mature, what has also led them to high-value crops. “For maize, you only harvest once a year but if I grow tomatoes or capsicum, that period would cover two seasons yet the cereal offers little. It is one of the reasons young farmers would not touch maize.”  Bernard Moina, an agricultural extension officer in Kitale, Kenya’s breadbasket acknowledged that the number of young people farming maize in the region is negligible.  “I can confidently say that maize has remained an old peoples’ crop. Most of those growing the crop are aged from 45 and beyond. The young moved on, which is a good thing because maize farming has become a thankless job.”