On a warm and dry morning, a group of labourers gather at the home of Neddy Khalayi in Waitaluk, Trans Nzoia district. The women enter the maize store to stuff maize cobs into gunny sacks. Young, muscular men carry the filled sacks out to a waiting tractor.
They pour the maize into the shelling machine and then carry the grain to dry on large canvas mats laid out under the open blue sky.
For the better part of the morning, the compound is a hive of activity, and Neddy is convinced that they are making good progress. That is until the sky starts to darken. She calls out to the labourers to abandon all activity and start covering up the maize with polythene sheets. What follows is a frantic scramble, and just as they finish securing the last heap, the fat rain drops start to fall.
This has been the bane of many farmers in Trans Nzoia County in the North Rift region during the last harvest. For long, the end of the year used to be a time to celebrate their months of hard work.
The dry weather ensured that they brought their harvest in from the farms and got it ready for the market without worries. But now, erratically changing weather patterns makes them live under the constant threat of having their maize damaged by rains.
When Neddy left her job at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1996 to start a new chapter in her life as a self-employed maize and dairy farmer, she was almost always sure of a good harvest. Although farming has had its challenges, she acknowledges that 2012 was the worst year. During the planting and weeding seasons, she was confident that everything was going well. But trouble came when heavy rains started pounded the region in November and December, catching her unprepared.
"The rain came just as we started harvesting. Most of the maize got wet in the farm and about a quarter of it rotted in the store," she explains.
The wet weather also complicated and slowed down the shelling process. Labourers had to carefully select the good maize from the bad. Furthermore, whenever it started raining, they had to stop working, store the maize and wait for the next day. This implied increased labour and time costs for the farmer.
As Neddy explains, not all farmers are affected. The large-scale ones may have been able to work faster, on account of having their own equipment. For small-scale farmers, even those who were able to predict the rains more accurately did not necessarily have it in their power to secure their maize on time. They had to rely on casual labour and hired shelling equipment, which are not always readily available in the busy harvesting season.
For other farmers, their challenge was not harvesting, but storing the maize. "Some of us convert rooms inside their houses into stores until we find buyers. If the maize is not dry, then it will definitely rot, because houses are not well ventilated," Neddy explains.
Like many others in Trans Nzoia, she is now confronted with every farmer's nightmare, hundreds of bags of maize that she cannot sell.
As she explains, the liberalised maize market now enables them to choose buyers based on the location, competitive price and the speed with which payment is effected. For her, the favourable option has always been the National Cereals and Produce Board. In August 2012, NCPB announced that every 90 Kilogramme bag would fetch the sellers Sh3,000. This is higher than private millers and middlemen, whose prices range between Sh2,500 and Sh2,800.
Be that as it may, Neddy is uncertain that she can brave the challenges involved in selling her maize to NCPB this time. It may cost her too much to try. "When you take your maize to NCPB in Moi's Bridge, there are so many people; you can spend three days on the queue.
Then you risk getting to the front and being rejected because the quality of your maize is too poor. If you hired a lorry to take the maize there, you have to pay for it anyway. That is already a loss you could be making," she explains the business sense behind her option to look for other buyers.
Nonetheless, she has reconciled herself with the projected losses. "Whatever we have salvaged will not fetch good prices because it is not clean. I know buyers will not offer good prices. It will affect my income this year."
It is not only the changing weather patterns and resulting poor harvest that is discouraging farmers. In 2012, approximately 40 per cent of the maize crop in South Rift was affected by a viral necrosis disease. The government advised farmers in that region to avoid maize farming for two seasons. Neighbouring regions are also taking precautions to avoid making even greater losses this year.
The Ministry of Agriculture projected that the long rains yield for 2012 would decline by approximately 25 per cent owing to disease outbreaks, lack of inputs during planting season, flash floods in April and May and losses caused by enhanced short rains during and after harvesting. If the downward turn of fortunes discourages more people to turn from maize farming altogether, the yield for 2013 could decline even more.
Neddy says although maize has been her grain of choice in the past, she will concentrate on other things this year. She will also spend more time running her small agro-vet store, where she sells drugs for animals and plants. "The shop gives me a predictable income and supplements what I get from the farm. I am a trained agriculturalist and I feel I can serve people by explaining and selling them the right drugs."
Sheltered under her veranda, she looks up to the sky, then casts a worried glance at the expanse of water that is slowly starting to flow towards the heaps of covered maize. "I wish it would stop raining for a few days, then I can get this maize shelled, dried and sold before I lose any more," she says.