A major National Irrigation Board (NIB) project that had been hailed as a panacea to recurrent drought in the Ukambani region has been gripped by a series of problems.
Many farmers have abandoned their plots at Usueni/Wikithuki Irrigation Scheme located in Tseikuru District, Kitui county which has so far gobbled up Sh400 million. Farmers complain that water that is drawn from River Tana is not pumped regularly because the NIB seldom settles electricity bills on time. Subsequently crops have now largely failed in the scheme that was commissioned in 2011.
This is in sharp contrast to 2013 when green farms produced healthy crops and bumper harvests. Today, most farmers are disillusioned after crops failed when taps ran dry.
During the bountiful times, numerous trucks would often be seen collecting produce from the 400-acre scheme which was transported to Tseikuru, Kyuso and Mwingi towns.
At that time, things were going so well that a thanksgiving prayer ceremony was held in 2013 attended by former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, Kitui Governor Julius Malombe, Senator David Musila and several MPs and members of the Kitui County Assembly.
During the event, the leaders and locals munched on boiled maize while marvelling at the wonder project that had given the dry region a new lease of life.
But that was in the past. When The Standard on Sunday visited the scheme this week, we found only four farmers in their farms . . . a far cry from the 300 who had regularly tended their farms previously. Derelict farms with withering crops, mounds of weeds that hide snakes were common place.
Other than the cool breeze from the ever flowing waters of River Tana, there was nothing much to show for the scheme, two years after the completion of the first phase, which had 400 acres under furrow irrigation.
The farmers who had planted maize last September, expecting to harvest in January ,are now counting their losses.
They accused the NIB of failing to pay electricity bills for four months, and this forced the Kenya Power company to disconnect electricity. The water pumps immediately stopped running.
“We were dealt a big blow. We went without water for three months and all the crops dried up. We couldn’t do anything, so we left,” said Munyoki Muthengi, one of the farmers.
Muthengi and his three colleagues returned towards the end of January after electricity bills amounting to Sh800,000 were cleared and water started flowing again.
He said he would use part of his farm to grow greengrams and watermelons.
“I hope this time round the water will be pumped consistently. It is disappointing to labour so much for nothing,” he said, droplets of sweat forming on his face.
Muusya Mwangangi, another farmer, says they have been abandoned: “We have been relying on our rudimentary farming skills.”
Where one acre could produce between 20 and 30 bags of maize, only between one and ten bags can be produced without irrigation, he said.
“We need a constant supply of water and comprehensive training on agri-business. We also need quality seeds,” Mwangangi observed.
“If we continue making losses, we have no option but to try our luck elsewhere. The promise that we could educate our children from this project will remain a pipedream unless something is done.”
We found Kimwele Kyondo clearing weeds on his farm. Every time his hoe hit the ground, it raised a heap of dust.
“Last season was a total failure,” Kyondo lamented.
To turn the tide, farmers want NIB to train them as well as provide them with tractors to plough their farms.
“This project can help lift our standards of living,” said Muthengi.
The disillusioned farmers have resorted to growing small quantities of sugarcane and cassava, dreams of large-scale flower and fruit farming all but abandoned.
Also abandoned was the construction of an airstrip in the outskirts of Tseikuru Market. The airstrip that was to help farmers transport their produce to other parts of the country stalled when the contractor abandoned the site.
However Richard Kanui, an engineer from NIB who is overseeing the project, said the project’s failure was largely because the farmers had not fully exploited its potential.
Kanui insisted that the board had been paying for electricity so that the pumps could work.
“The farmers need to show commitment and think big. For example, we don’t expect them to still grow maize on a large scale, long after the first phase was completed. They need to diversify,” said Kanui.
He said money had been set aside to train the farmers. In Phase Two of the scheme, 100 acres will be under drip and 300 acres under sprinkler irrigation. Farmers will also be provided with seeds and fertilisers, he said.
The engineer also blamed to the county government for problems at the scheme. “The county government extension officers deployed there are a let down. They lack seriousness,” he said.
Kanui said that due to apathy from farmers, the irrigation board was considering contracting an investor to hire part of the land for serious farming.