In October last year, rice production declined sharply pushing retail prices up by 38 per cent in Kenya.
The country's staple was selling at Sh145 in January 2017 but hit Sh200 per kilogramme towards the end of the same year.
But all this may change with researchers targeting to increase production from less than 200,000 tonnes of rice which is far below the national demand of over 450,000 tonnes per year.
To fill the deficit, Kenya imports the grain mostly from Asian countries since low productivity leads to high production costs which limit rice farmers by making their products costlier and less competitive in the global market.
Imports are mainly from Pakistan, Thailand, India and Vietnam but there are also modest imports from Tanzania and Uganda.
According to the 2017 Kenya Corn, Wheat and Rice Report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agriculture Service, EAC maintains a common external tariff of 75 per cent ad valorem or $345 USD per ton, whichever is higher for rice imports from non-EAC countries.
Kenya has however been granted by EAC "the stay of application", based on limited local production, and therefore applies the former tariff structure (that was applicable before July 1st, 2015) of 35 per cent ad-valorem or $200 USD per ton, whichever is higher.*
The USDA adds that Kenya mainly produces the aromatic Basmati in irrigation schemes managed by Kenya's National Irrigation Board (NIB).
In addition, GOK and county governments have been promoting the New Rice for Africa (NERICA), an improved, rain-fed, upland rice variety. NIB is also responsible for the rehabilitation of the irrigation schemes.
And scientists are now working on the Hybrid Rice Project which aims to develop 2-line hybrids and parental lines in selected African countries among which is Kenya.
According to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the project will facilitate expedited farmer access to this product through private companies and public institutions in Africa, for increased yields and improved income streams for farmers.
In AATF's 2017 Annual Report, in the trials, the candidate hybrids outperformed the local checks for key traits such as date-to-maturity, yields and disease resistance.
The hybrids take only 90-120 days to mature compared to 135-150 days for local varieties. Tried in Hola and Malindi in the coastal region, Mwea in central Kenya, and Bondo and Kisumu in western Kenya, the new rice hybrids will not only improve yields of rice but they will also be as competitive as imported rice in terms of grain quality and affordability.
It is estimated that farmers stand to gain an average of US$350 to US$1,000 per hectare more than with the commercially available varieties.