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Growing rice in Kenya: The pioneering roles of different stakeholders

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Rice was introduced to the Kenyan coast by Arabs and Indians in the nineteenth century.

It eventually diffused along the Tana River valley and among the Miji Kenda. In the 1930s and early 1940s, colonial authorities introduced the crop in Lake Victoria region among the Luo in Kajulu, Kano, Nyakach, Kisumu, Seme and West Karachuonyo; the Luhya in north and south Wanga, Mukulu, Kakalelwa, Marachi and north Marama; and among the Meru.

Today, rice is the third most important cereal crop in Kenya after maize and wheat.

Mainly grown by small-scale farmers, its dietary importance has increased phenomenally to the extent that imports are required to satisfy local consumption.

The colonial state was determined to extend rice growing among Africans for diversity.

According to H Wolfe, the Deputy Director of Agriculture in charge of plant industry in the 1930s, rice was introduced in African reserves to mitigate famines, which occurred with alarming frequency. The Department of Agriculture distributed many varieties of rice on trial farms.


In the Tana River valley, Kau and among the Digo and Giriama where old varieties had been grown new types like Peshawari (Pishori) from India, Sena, Mwanza, Afaa and Ambarikori were experimented.

Peshawari and Sindano were the most successful. The former’s weakness was the tendency of its grains to break when cooked.

In Nyanza, the government introduced varieties like Bungala, Mbuyu, Sindano, Sena, Faiya and Basmati. Seeds that were introduced from Australia did not germinate.

Some government officials were too paternalistic that they refused to allow rice growing in their districts. This attitude was exhibited by CV Buxton, the District Commissioner of South Nyanza in the 1930s.

Buxton said the people of West Karachuonyo were not ready for rice cultivation as they were busy with cotton, sorghum and groundnuts.


The second group that pioneered rice-growing was the African peasants. Since pre-colonial years when Arabs and Indians introduced new rice into Kenya, coastal inhabitants adopted it alongside existing ones as protection against risk.

This is the spirit with that would later be applied to the introduction of rice in Nyanza and Central provinces. They innovatively added the crop to their repertoire – sorghum, maize and others.

They also responded rationally to price fluctuations: increasing their holdings when prices were high and reducing them when they declined.

Sometimes, Africans’ enthusiasm to grow new crops was frustrated by the authoritarian and discriminative behaviour of colonial chiefs.

Because of clan rivalries between Kabodho and the people of upper Nyakach in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Chief Opiyo, who came from the former clan, forced Kadianga and Kajimbo people to dig a canal around Kongou near the lake to grow rice. This was a long distance from Nyabondo, whose wetlands had potential for the crop.

Indians were the link between the colonial government and African rice growers.

In Nyanza, the Indian-owned firm, Messrs Rahim Jivraj and Company, produced its own rice on a limited scale in Kibos from 1932. It also processed paddy imported from Mwanza, Tanzania.

Since the imported rice was of poor quality, the firm applied to be granted a licence to install a hulling mill. Its main competitor for the tender was another Indian firm, Nyanza Oil Mills Company, which supplied seeds to growers at the request of the Department of Agriculture in 1934. The colonial government preferred Rahim Jivraj for the work in 1937.

Jivraj was given the licence primarily because this firm was ready to invest in a more powerful mill valued at £1,500.

It had also contributed reasonably towards the wages of agricultural instructors. Nonetheless, this led to protest by Nyanza Mills.

In the end, the two firms were allowed to buy rice at specified markets and in accordance with the 1935 Marketing of Native Produce Ordinance. The lack of milling and marketing facilities had for long stifled rice growing in the country.

The initiatives of the Indian firms therefore gave vent for sales of surplus rice and spurred an increase in quantities produced.

It should be pointed out, however, that the milling and marketing policies of the government encouraged monopolies and did not adequately promote growers’ interests.

As a result of these initiatives, rice growing in Nyanza increased and surpassed production in the Coast Province. The quantities sold in Nyanza increased from 48 to 102 tonnes in 1935 and 1937 respectively. In 1944, rice growing areas produced 26,259 pound bags valued at £15,755.

The following year, according to purchases made by Maize and Produce Control, the quantities sold increased to 28,608 bags valued at £18,389.

The 1944 and 1945 figures should have been much higher but for the fact that a large proportion of rice grown in the country was consumed by the growers.

Rice production increased up to the late 1950s when a new era began. This was the era of large-scale irrigated rice on small holder farms.

Though irrigation schemes had been planned in the early 1930s in Ahero – the Nyando flood plains near Kisumu – Mwea in Embu and Perkerra in Marigat – Baringo – their implementation was shelved due to the financial problems of the depression years. It was not until 1954 that the scheme in Marigat opened.

Instead of rice, other cereals like sorghum and maize and fruits like pawpaws and watermelon were grown.

Mwea started operations in 1956 and became the largest sugar grower in the country with time. The scheme in Ahero was established in 1969 after another in Bunyala was initiated the previous year. The schemes were intended to increase rice production through enhanced water supplies.

Though this objective was largely achieved during in post-independence Kenya, rice growing still faces a number of challenges. Malaria and other diseases are rampant in rice-growing areas.

Inadequate infrastructure, an inefficient marketing system, low prices, poor technology, expensive farm inputs and equipment, inadequate credit support for growers and inefficient management due to corruption and inefficiency of the National Irrigation Board and the National Cereals and Produce Board are some of the problems facing the industry.

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