Poor storage puts a damper on maize farmers' cash prospects [Business Daily (Kenya)]
(Business Daily (Kenya) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Many farmers in Kenya's grain basket of the Rift Valley are disappointed. Though they had expected a boon from the good prices offered by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), this did not happen. Their harvest was rejected for not meeting quality standards.
The rains that coincided with last year's harvesting season in the country was a great disappointment to the growers who were ill-equipped to store maize in the wet conditions.
Their produce did not have the moisture content required by the NCPB. The board buys maize with moisture content of 13.5 but the grain that the farmers were supplying had moisture level as high as 20 per cent, costing them the Sh3,000 that the board offers for a 90-kilogramme bag.
"Lack of proper storage facilities is a big challenge. There is no place to keep grains. In the past there were granaries where our parents could store their produce. Today, people have set aside small rooms in their houses where they keep their harvests because of insecurity," says Mr Zack Matere, a farmer in the Rift Valley.
Wet weather is a major cause of aflatoxin in maize as farmers find it hard to dry the grain when it is raining round the clock.
According to the East Africa Grain Council (EAGC) many farmers suffered losses after their maize was affected by the wet weather, forcing them to sell their produce as animal feed because it fell short of the required grade for milling as human food.
"Thousands of bags were discoloured by the moisture, forcing farmers to sell them as animal food, hence earning them very low returns," says Gerald Masila, EAGC chief executive officer.
Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate that 30 per cent of the maize harvested is lost due to poor post-harvesting handling.
This might set back food security efforts in the country, especially at this time when the government has announced a shortfall of up to 10 million bags from the long crop harvests in Trans-Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties — the country's major maize belts.
A former official at the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Stephen Njukia had told the Business Daily in an earlier interview that losses of grain occur across the chain, starting from harvesting, storage and when transporting the produce to the market.
"But it must be noted that the greatest loss happens when farmers do not dry their maize well before storage," Mr Njukia ( now deceased) said.
He said farmers end up losing up to 50 per cent of their harvest when they hurriedly dry the crop. Most of it is either discoloured or is contaminated with aflatoxin. He called on the government to invest more in drying facilities, especially mobile driers.
A conference last year on post-harvest losses hosted by the AGRA in partnership with the Melinda & Gates Foundation in Nairobi, heard that Africa loses $4 billion worth of food through wastage annually, mainly as a result of inefficient storage and processing systems.
Farmers face difficulties in handling produce from the previous seasons without incurring losses. Most small-scale growers rely on the NCPB and private millers as well as investors to buy or store their grain.
But when the market prices are poor during harvesting season, they become reluctant to sell , instead opting to keep their produce although they do not have proper storage systems.
NCPB initiated warehouse receipting system (WRS) in 2010 to store grain safely at a fee, but over the years, the response has not been good.
But it also leases its facilities to third parties. It has a capacity to handle more than 20 million bags of maize and came up with the system to cash in on idle space at its facilities across the country.
The board's public relations manager Evans Wasike says WRS system has not picked up over the past two years due to the good prices that farmers had been earning from maize.
"The essence of farmers storing their maize under the WRS is for them to wait for the prices to stabilise before selling the commodity and because of the good prices that maize has been fetching in the recent years, many of them did not see the need for storage," says Mr Wasike.
Other farmers have been shying away because of the storage charges. NCPB demands Sh60 to store a 90-kilogramme bag and Sh15 for subsequent months for the same quantity for six months which is the allowed maximum duration that one store harvests.
Mr Paul Kiptanui, a large-scale maize farmer in Uasin Gishu County, says he never embraced the system because of the costs.
"I agree that WRS is a good idea considering that most farmers do not have proper storage systems but the fee is what has put me off," he says.
But Tegemeo Institute's Raphael Gitau says WRS is a noble idea as it helps farmers to fetch good prices for their maize. "Most farmers sell their maize immediately after harvesting hence get low prices that subjects them to losses," says Mr Gitau. He, however, also calls for a review of the fees.
EAGC in conjunction with the Kenya Maize Development Programme and USAID's Regional Agricultural Trade Expansion Support, launched the first-ever WRS on a pilot basis at the Nakuru wheat silos in April 2008 to ensure farmers only sell their produce when prices are good.
To date, EAGC has more than 10 certified warehouses across the country, according Mr Masila.
EAGC has partnered with several banks including K-Rep, Equity and Chase banks which offer farmers advances against their maize at the warehouse to act as a collateral.
"We have opened a number of warehouses in Nakuru, Eldoret, Makueni and many other parts of the country and so far we are happy with the response that we have received from farmers," says Mr Masila.
Farmers in Uasin Gishu and Trans-Nzoia Counties have been given mobile driers, which have come in handy during rainy seasons. But these facilities are not enough to meet the farmers' needs.
Mr William Lanier, the director of Neveridle Farms and Consulting, based in Ghana, is watching the local commodities market with a keen interest and says mobile storage systems have advantages for small-scale farmers.
"For instance, instead of storing two tonnes, you can store between 15 and 50 tonnes, yes the price goes up but the benefits go up faster. Mobile storage moves when it is empty to where it's needed," he said in an online interview.
"Mobile storage is not a truck or a wagon which is too expensive to store. It is not a stationary warehouse or tall silo that can be controlled by politics or made obsolete by shifting risky land ownership. An economist would say the opportunity cost of mobile storage is low."
As an investor in grain handling, Mr Lanier is passionate about mobile storage system for small-scale farmer and seeks to ensure that farmers beyond Ghana benefit. "We offer very small mobile bins that can go where even a small truck can go to protect harvest from day one," he says.
"We have larger capacity bins for traders or aggregators wanting to provide out-storage for nucleus warehouses. Mobile storage can move between cultural and political communities capturing what is otherwise wasted on rodents, flooding, rotting and poor politics and capture the benefits of farm gate marketing (the entire harvest, no post harvest losses) they would have enough to make a profit and finance a lease or purchase of mobile storage system."
However, as with any good innovation, this system has cost-implication. According to Mr Lanier, a mobile storage bin has a capacity for 24 tonnes and is designed to store up to 150 bags. But he says, it would be cheaper for growers to seek storage services from those who have invested in the facility at a fee.
"In Ghana, leases are at one cedi ($0.50 or Sh42) per bag a month because the storage is on wheels and payments come when there is profit and leaves when it's empty," he says adding that others are the 30 and 50-tonne bins with a capacity to store 300 to 500 bags of grains.
Apart from mobility, Mr Lanier says the storage facilities are water, pest and tamper proof with tight fittings, silicone sealed panels for fumigation as well as fan ports and vents for ambient aeration.
He says post-harvest losses not only result in food insecurity in the continent but also leave farmers poorer, reaping less than they plant.
"The African smallholder farmer is the richest farmer in the democratic world. No other agricultural system allows a farmer to waste (feed) so much of what they grow to rats, birds, insects and fungi and still be farming," he observes.
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