Rice farmers in Kenya utilize ocean tides to boost production.

Rice farmers in Kenya utilize ocean tides to boost production.

By Caroline Chebet, Standard Media Group Kenya

At a glance

1000-1500- Estimated number of households in Ozi location in Tana Delta.

126 –Number of rice farmers in Ozi in 2019.

51,284 kilograms of unprocessed rice harvested in 2019 valued at Sh 3,076,983.

245- Number of rice farmers in 2020. 

-79,625 kilograms of rice harvested in 2020 valued at Ksh 4,777,500, an increase by Ksh 1.7 Million.

-Komboka, Saro, Daurado Precoce, Nericas, CSR 36 and 08FAN10- Rice varieties that have been developed that can withstand brackish conditions.

In the golden midday sun, Ozi village in Ozi location nestled within the tail end of Tana Delta in Tana River County looks nothing less of a lost paradise. It borders the Indian Ocean on one end and river Tana, the country’s longest river, on the other. During seasons of floods and high tides, Ozi becomes an island and when the water recedes, it joins the mainland in Kalota Brook where the salty seawater mixes with freshwater.

Ozi Village/ Tana River County: Photo by Lina Mwamachi

It is the ocean tides that make Ozi more magical, an occurrence that has made it an unrivaled coastal bread basket resulting from the ‘natural irrigation’ where tides push water into rice paddies.

“Unlike in other rice-growing regions where water sometimes is a challenge, In Ozi we bank on the tides that push water upstream into the canals and finally into farms. Already, we are waiting for the October tides to push water from river Tana into the farms,” said Saidi Nyara, a rice farmer.

In the village, the indigenous knowledge of predicting when tides are high is one of the interesting tales that has kept it active during all seasons and beyond the pandemic period. According to the farmers, the high tides start off pushing water up the river Tana from mid-October every year, and farmers dig canals to allow the river water to flow into the farms. It is also the season where most farmers harvest their produce to pave way for a new planting season.

One of the canals dug for water to flow to the farms when tides come. Photo credit: Lina Mwamachi

For farmers like Nuru Omar Mwana, the pandemic did not have any impact on her farming ventures. She, like many other farmers in Ozi, has mastered the art of accessing water, which, alongside the availability of certified seeds, has seen her cashing from the venture throughout the year.

“The produce is not as I had anticipated because the rains were not enough, but I am prepared for the next planting season once the tides begin,” Nuru said.

Nuru is among the 245 farmers who in 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, were supplied rice seeds by Nature Kenya under the European Union’s Community Resilience Building in Livelihood and Disaster Risk Management (REBUILD) project. They collectively produced 79,625 kilograms of rice valued at Ksh 4,777,500, an increase from 2019 when 126 farmers were supplied with seeds.

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“For the past one year, rice production in Ozi has actually increased with many farmers venturing into farming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike in other areas, the 2020 period which was marred with lockdowns saw more farmers venturing into rice farming because of the availability of seeds and water that naturally flows into their farms,” said George Odera, Nature Kenya’s Tana Delta Project Manager.

Odera added that 2020 also saw a request for more rice seeds by farmers, which managed to increase production.

In 2019, the 126 farmers harvested 78,897 kilograms of unprocessed rice. After processing, the total processed rice amounted to 51,284 kilograms, producing a value of Sh 3 million (USD $26,985).

In 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, the 245 farmers harvested 122,500 kilograms of rice, which upon processing produced 79,625 kilograms valued at Ksh 4.7 million (USD $42,278), an increase of Ksh 1.7 million (USD $15,292) in a year.

The four-year project funded by the EU is currently in its second year. 

There is still a deficit in rice production in the country.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics

The country has been importing rice from countries including Pakistan and Tanzania. Rice imports have been increasing from 507,998.7 tonnes of rice in 2016 to 605,147.5 tonnes in 2020. In 2019, the country imported 608,609.1 tonnes of rice.

Tana Delta Sub-County officer Zilambe Kombo said that there are two rice farming seasons when a farmer can harvest up to 29 bags of rice per acre. The farmers sell their rice locally.

Seawater increasing

But while Ozi’s magical natural irrigation where farmers do not need to use machines to irrigate their rice paddies remains a key advantage, the salty seawater has been a challenge. Seawater intrusion has been intensifying with time. According to environmental experts, it is linked to climate change.

The seawater from the ocean is too saline and when the levels of freshwater in the river Tana are low, the seawater flows easily along the river and into the farms.

Nature Kenya director Paul Matiku says while river Tana is key to farmers in coastal regions including Ozi, it supports hydroelectric power projects like the Seven Folks dams that include Kindaruma, Kiambere, Kamburu, Gitaru, and Masinga dams. While river Tana is the country’s longest river, traversing most arid and semi-arid countries, a lot of water is extracted to support irrigation activities that further reduce the flow downstream especially during the dry season.

“In such instances, there is little flow of water downstream to push back the ocean water. In turn, the ocean water pushes much further back into the land, causing havoc to farmers. It is also believed that seawater levels in the ocean have continued to rise as a result of climate change, a factor that continues to heighten cases of seawater intrusion in villages bordering the ocean,” Dr. Matiku said.

Matiku added that while the Tana delta, where Ozi lies, is below the sea level, it makes it easy for seawater to flow into the farms, a situation that mostly results in losses as a result of a high concentration of salt that dehydrates the crops.

Seawater can intrude as far as 30 kilometers into river Tana.

Erratic rainfall and the proposed construction of High Grand Falls Dam, a planned hydroelectric power project across river Tana, are expected to further alter the flow of river Tana.

New rice seeds that survive in salty water

As salty water increases, organizations including National Drought Management Authority, Nature Kenya, CISP, GROOTS, Procasur, and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization have come up with rice seeds that can do well in extra saline conditions.

Kalro researcher John Kimani said the institution has been working with a number of international organizations to research rice seed varieties that can withstand the brackish conditions. The researchers, he says, have since produced a number of high-yielding rice varieties that are tolerant to both diseases and salinity. 

Several varieties including those locally known as Komboka, Saro, Daurado Precoce, Nericas, CSR 36 and 08FAN10 have been developed through partnerships with organizations including the Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative and Japan International Cooperation Agency as well as the Ministry for Agriculture and Counties.

The new rice varieties are not genetically produced but are carefully selected by experts over the years. Although the varieties can withstand the brackish conditions, some cannot withstand the deeply saline conditions, which researchers say they are still studying.

“Through partnerships, we have been able to develop salinity-tolerant varieties which are high-yielding with good grain quality. Many of the varieties are also resistant to diseases like rice blast, brown spot and bacterial leaf blight. Particularly the CSR36 variety is currently common among farmers countrywide,” Kimani said.

Zilambe said the current new varieties have seen farmers increasing their production despite the low water volumes within river Tana. 

“The new varieties are solving the challenges brought about by changing weather patterns characterized by low rainfalls,” he said.

Nyara said they have devised a way of sustaining access to the rice seeds through Mpozi Farmers Association, an umbrella organization that brings together farmers within the area.

“Once we harvest, we take back part of the seeds to the association for storage so that when planting season comes, we can easily access the seeds alongside those given by the conservation organisations we are working with,” Nyara said.

A woman harvesting rice and preparing her farm for the next planting season. Photo by Lina Mwamachi

Last year, the institution also partnered with Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative to promote rice production in the coastal region by contracting farmers to plant researched certified rice and supply seeds to the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) for certification.

The move, according to Mr Kimani, has seen the production of certified seeds in the Coastal region for the first time.

“Because of high yield per unit, farmers can get more money to undertake normal livelihoods from these varieties especially in the face of climate change and the pandemic. There is need for more partnerships between national government, counties, KALRO, and its research partners to upscale the technologies and support with extension services and good agronomic management practices to boost rice production,” Kimani said.

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.

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