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Story Publication logo December 3, 2009

Kenya: "Let the Rain Come"


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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Fog shrouded the surrounding hills as a steady rain fell in the town of Machakos today, driving customers from the shops and market stalls in the middle of town. Tarps were draped over bins of grain and beans to keep them dry. But just try to find a merchant unhappy with the rain. "No problem. It's only for a while," said one vegetable vendor in the market. "Then we'll have enough food for Kenya."

Rain doesn't make for good photos on a project dealing with drought and climate change. But the evidence of the drought that devastated farmers and pastoralists across Kenya this year was all around, if you looked for it.

Some of the farms in the area are irrigated by pumps that pull water from nearby streams. That's almost certainly where the ear in Riccardo Gangale's photo above came from. And on many farms, promising new crops of corn, beans and vegetables were coming up where farmers who could afford seed had planted at the right time. But on other farms, or shambas, as they are called, large gardens by American standards, much of the ground was still bare. In this region, just south of the equator, it's warm enough to grow crops year around, but some of the farmers who had lost their crops earlier this year had failed to get new ones started. One farmer I talked to had re-planted just a small portion of his plot, the part with the best soil.

In Machakos, the farm supply stores on the town square reported that sales of hybrid seed were up this year, because farmers who would normally use as seed some of the corn they had harvested the season before didn't have any grain to plant. But while seed sales were up, the stores were selling less fertilizer. Many farmers can't afford both.

Some have a few cattle and use the manure to fertilize their crops, but this year there's less of that to go around, too. Forty percent of the cattle in the area died this year because of the lack of grass, according to a livestock specialist who was behind the counter at the 7-Up farm store. (A sign hanging over the store's doorway advertised Pioneer seed, so a reporter from The Des Moines Register Pioneer's hometown paper, had to check it out. Alas, the Pioneer bags were all sold out.)

Nearby at the cereal stores, where the locals buy staples such as rice, beans and especially corn, or maize, in bulk, there had been a recent run on bags of what Kenyan-grown corn that there was. Store clerks said money-strapped farmers, who have little or no access to credit to buy their supplies, were buying the bags of corn to use as seed because they were cheaper than the hybrid seed at the agro-dealers on the square. A 90-kilo bag of maize costs about $33. A two-kilo bag of hybrid seed, enough to cover a quarter acre, goes for about $5.

In the produce market, vendors said prices were up because of the drought. Green bananas, which are sold still on the branch, cost 20 shillings, or 27 cents, for three. Before the drought, you could have had six at that price.

"Let the rain come," said Christopher Mutua, a clerk at the Visions cereal store. "Tomorrow," he continued, the customers "will come."


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