Eunice Wakiaga wades through a paddy field, uprooting a ring of weeds nestled among her rice plantation.
After growing traditional pishori rice varieties for years, Ms Wakiaga is trying out a new hybrid which researchers have approved as high-yielding.
But while the farmer only planted the hybrid seeds last month, the traditional varieties have also jutted across the farms to jostle for space with the new ones.
“We have been planting the traditional pishori rice all along, so they keep sprouting back but we are weeding them out to enable us realise the full potential of the new hybrid ones,” said the rice farmer, who also decried water scarcity in the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, leading to strict rationing of the commodity.
The farmer says she used to plant 25 kilos of the traditional rice seeds on an acre, yet this time she only needed eight kilos. The huge disparity is due to seed viability, according to researchers.
Because the rice farmers have replanted some of the traditional seeds for decades, the old varieties have lost vitality over time, forcing farmers to grow more seeds in the nursery to that they can have enough seedlings to transplant.
Besides the seed rate, farmers have also spotted a number of differences between the old and the new varieties.
Bernard Gitare who has been growing rice for the last seven years notes that new varieties not only germinate faster but also have wide- leaf blades. The common pishori is known for its thin blade and slow growth rate.
A kilo of the hybrid rice seeds costs Sh120.
“We used to plant pishori 270 and 360 varieties which gave us between 25 to 30 bags per acre but researchers told us this new variety can give us up to 40 bags per acre,” said Mr Gitare, adding that this is their first time to grow the hybrids.
The farmers say one hardly makes money from growing traditional rice due to poor yields.
Ms Wakiaga said she spends at least Sh30,000 on average to grow rice on an acre of land. But at the end of the season after four months, she only pockets Sh20,000.
“We spend a lot of money in inputs and labour yet the produce is not substantial. We are therefore monitoring this new hybrid variety if it will bring any significant difference,” she said.
The new hybrid rice currently under cultivation by a section of farmers in Mwea, Kirinyaga County, is one of the five hybrids released last year by the government for commercialisation after decades of research.
About 200 acres of the scheme are currently under the hybrid crop while another 1,000 acres will be planted in the main season.
Mwea Irrigation scheme is the country’s leading rice producer, covering over 26,000 acres, with farmers largely growing pishori, a fragrant basmati rice variety.
The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) in partnership with African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) are also evaluating another 10 hybrid rice varieties under the national performance trials.
The new high yielding varieties can give around 12 metric tonnes per acre, which could help Kenya bridge a widening gap in rice production.
Dr John Kimani, a rice breeder and Kalro-Mwea centre director, notes that rice consumption in the country is rising faster than output.
“As a result we have to improve our production for the country to meet the rising demand,” the scientist said.
A Food Balance Sheet (FBS) by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that rice is currently the seventh most popular food in the country,,with a per capita consumption of 20.6 kilos.
Last year, Kenya’s rice production significantly shot from 54,000 metric tonnes to 156,000 metric tonnes a year which is measly compared to the country’s 650,000 metric tonnes annual consumption.
The Government plans to bridge the consumption gap by boosting production to 438,000 metric tonnes by 2022 under its Big 4 Agenda, forcing researchers to work round the clock.
The rice grower says the popular basmati rice has been grown in the country since early 80s but after 30 years of replanting, its genetic make-up has degenerated, leading to lower yields and susceptibility to pests and diseases.
But despite its dwindling productivity, rice farmers continue to grow it due to high demand since consumers love its aroma.
In Asian countries, new rice varieties are introduced after every five years to make sure that farmers do not grow weaker seeds.
“We have done product profile and found that farmers cling to basmati because of the aroma and white, slender grain. The new varieties must have these traits so that we can replace the traditional ones,” Dr Kimani said.
He added that they would combine basmati traits with the high yielding genes from Korean germplasm to come up with a hybrid aromatic rice.
While Kenyan consumers love the aromatic rice, scientists say that aroma is just a scent and has nothing to do with the nutritional value of the crop. Nevertheless, they’ll still have to introduce it into the hybrid varieties due to market demand.
Dr Sanni Kayode, a lead scientist on rice research at AATF, said for the 10 new hybrid varieties to be considered for release, they must yield at least 10 percent better than the previous ones.
“Research is going on in five locations including Ahero in Kisumu County, Hola, Mwea and Malindi. The varieties must perform better in all the locations,” he said.
Dr Kayode said since Kenya’s rice consumption rate grows at 13 per cent while production goes up at three per cent due to urbanisation and change in lifestyle which is enhancing rice consumption, farmers need to grow superior and high yielding varieties.
On average, he says a Kenyan farmer harvests two tonnes per hectare compared to the global productivity of 4.5 tonnes per hectare.
“One of the best ways of achieving productivity is using high yielding rice varieties. There is also a need for private sector investment to help us close the gap,” Dr Kayode said.