Rain or shine, grain banks help Kenyan farmers beat trade cartels

  • By Kagondu Njagi
  • 02/11/2018

Jotham Mugendi (right), the manager of the Kibubua seed storage facility in Tharaka Nithi County shows a farmer one of the seed treatment containers at the facility’s offices in central Kenya. September 14, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi


MUKOTHIMA, Kenya - For a farmer who has repeatedly suffered poor harvests due to inadequate rains, Silas Kirimi was surprised to find himself with the opposite problem this year: What to do with last season's bumper harvest of green gram?

Prolonged rains from March to May allowed the 45-year-old to harvest 10 bags of the mung beans - double the usual amount - from his farm in Mukothima village in central Kenya, he said.

Usually, this would present him with a dilemma.

He could either hold onto his surplus crop and risk losing it to pests or spoilage, because of poor storage, or he could sell it to middlemen, who buy grain at low prices and then sell it on for their own profit later.

"It was like throwing away my life. Any choice I made left me at a loss," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But this year, Kirimi had a third option. He sold his surplus to one of two new community-run grain storage facilities recently built in Tharaka Nithi County, where Mukothima village is located.

The facilities buy grain from farmers at the current market price, store it securely, and then sell it to families facing food shortages.

"The aim is to boost food security among poor households," said Muthomi Njuki, Tharaka Nithi County's governor.

The grain storage facilities "also protect farmers from cartels who buy grain at throwaway prices only to sell it back at thrice the price to the same farmers when there is a shortage."


County governments are building or have built community grain reserves in more than 10 counties across Kenya over the past three years, according to Noah Wekesa, chairman of the Strategic Food Reserve, a government agency.

The storage facilities are constructed and run with money from the government-backed Constituencies Development Fund, which supports grassroots development projects.

At the Mukuuni grain reserve that Kirimi uses, some 40 km (25 miles) from the farmer's home, manager Jotham Mugendi is busy recording new deposits.

The initiative helps impoverished families become more resilient to the effects of droughts and floods on their incomes because it allows them to buy grain at an affordable price, rather than the inflated prices charged in the markets, he said.

"Families are also well-prepared for emergencies like medical bills and school fees," Mugendi said.

In the past, many farmers have had to sell all their harvest to brokers at below-market prices to pay essential costs.

Mugendi said the facility in Mukuuni can store up to 100 bags of grain weighing 90 kg each.

Larger silos can hold up to 1,000 bags, he added.

The steel silos protect the food from post-harvest threats, including aflatoxin - a dangerous toxin produced by certain moulds - and pests such as weevils.

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose over 20 percent of their maize to pests and spoilage after harvesting, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

"We even have spare space to store fertiliser which is distributed to farmers at subsidised prices," Mugendi said.


A 2017 study by the Nairobi-based Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development reported that about 3.5 million people in Kenya are severely food-insecure, meaning they struggle to get enough food to eat.

Food production in the country will likely decline in the future due to failing or excessive rains, it predicted.

But Wekesa, at the Strategic Food Reserve, said food cartels - rather than the effects of climate change - pose the greatest threat to food security in Kenya.

Agnes Murugi, busy threshing a sack of maize cobs under the shade of a mango tree at her home in Kibubua village, has seen that firsthand, in July last year.

"My daughter was in hospital because of pregnancy problems. I could not raise the money to pay the hospital for her to be released. This is why I sold my five bags of maize," said the 57-year-old.

The brokers convinced her to sell her maize at 30 Kenyan shillings ($0.29) per kilogramme.

Eventually, her remaining food ran out. With the little savings she had, Murugi visited the grain stockists at the Kibubua shopping centre.

There, she was shocked to see maize selling for more than three times the amount the same traders had paid for her crop.

"I begged them to reduce the price for me. Even after I explained to them about the hospital bill, they refused," she said. "These people are merciless."

Her latest maize harvest has yielded more than she needs - but she said she will resist selling to the brokers who regularly visit rural homes scouting for easy money.

Murugi had not heard about the grain reserves in her county before speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But when told about them, she said she would rather keep her food stocks at home.

Mugendi at the Mukuuni grain reserve said stories like Murugi's motivate him to educate farmers about the benefits of using the grain reserves.

"It is a difficult task because most of the farmers are still traumatised by previous experiences with unscrupulous merchants," he said.

"However, many are beginning to appreciate this resilience-building initiative."

In Mukothima village, Kirimi is relieved the grain reserves mean he can finally farm his land without fear of running out of food or being ripped off by brokers.

"I am not worried about my family going hungry. I can always look to the community reserves to get food when there is shortage," he said. "It is a good effort."

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