For 36 years, Francis Abuya Odidi drudged in his rice fields, shedding his youth in an enterprise whose socio-economic benefits remained elusive. Despite the intense labour, yields were often disappointing; prices dismal. Indeed, like other farmers in West Kano Irrigation Scheme, Francis started shopping for alternative crops. Rice farming was not the gem it was billed to be. It simply had become untenable.
On the verge of abandoning Kenya’s third most popular staple, however, Francis heard of a new technology that could reverse his dwindling fortunes. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), introduced for the first time at the neighbouring Ahero Irrigation Scheme in 2011, had forayed into West Kano, raising hope for Francis and his contemporaries.
‘It was welcome news. We were glad that a new way to grow more rice with less input and labour had finally arrived,’ Francis recalls.
In the morning of May 13, 2016 for instance, Francis joined other farmers at the West Kano Irrigation Scheme, Block C to tend to his one month old paddy. Ordinarily, you would not find farmers in the field at that time of the year as irrigation would not be possible. SRI was gaining traction.
But what exactly is SRI technology? According to Prof. Bancy Mati who pioneered SRI research in Kenya at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, the innovation combines a number of agronomic practices to boost yields while cutting back on inputs and water.
‘The idea is to differently manage water, soil, nutrients and the rice plant to achieve higher yields. This allows us to grow more rice with available water and land,’ explains Prof. Mati.
Contrary to the water intensive continuous flooding method, under SRI, farmers can practice alternate wetting and drying; fostering air retention capacity of the soil.
The technology equally makes it possible to transplant 8-12 day old rice in square patterned lines instead of broadcast. This maximally exposes the plants to nutrients and sunlight, producing to stronger stalks and more tillers.
Managed well, paddy under SRI matures three weeks earlier with 25-50% increase in yields.
It is these attributes that continue to endear the technology to farmers like Francis across the country with over 5000 farmers currently using it.
Teresa Akinyi Ouno, another farmer from West Kano says since she embraced the technology, her life has dramatically changed.
‘As a woman, SRI has lessened the work while increased the returns. Instead of 25kgs of seeds per acre now I only use – 5Kgs. The yields have also shot to 33 bags per hectare up from 27 previously,’ enumerates Akinyi.
Prof. Mati believes that SRI can be deployed to bridge the gap between consumption and production patterns of the commodity in the country. The don says Kenya currently produces 80,000 metric tonnes of rice annually against an increasing consumption rate of 400,000 metric tonnes.
The technology was first introduced in Kenya at the Mwea Irrigation Scheme in 2009 with support of the National Irrigation Board; the African Institute for Capacity Development, World Bank and JKUAT.