A farmer tending his rice fields in Ozi, Tana River County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]
In the golden midday sun, Ozi village in Ozi location, nestled within the tail end of Tana Delta in Tana River County, looks nothing short of a lost paradise.
The village borders the Indian Ocean on one end and Tana River, the country’s longest river, on the other. During seasons of flooding and high tides, Ozi becomes an island. And when the water recedes, it joins the mainland in Kalota Brook where the salty seawater mixes with freshwater.
It is the ocean tides that make Ozi more magical, an occurrence that has made it an unrivalled coastal bread basket as a result of the ‘natural irrigation’, where tides push water into rice paddies.
“Unlike in other rice-growing regions, where water is sometimes a challenge, in Ozi we bank on the tides that push water upstream into the canals and finally into farms. We often wait for months like October when tides to push water from River Tana into the farms,” said Saidi Nyara, a rice farmer.
In the village, the knowledge of predicting when tides are high is one of the interesting tales the locals have had beyond the pandemic period.
According to farmers, the high tides start off by pushing water up the Tana river from mid-October, and farmers dig canals to allow the river water to flow into the farms. It is also the season where most farmers harvest their produce to pave way for a new planting season.
For farmers like Nuru Omar Mwana, the pandemic did not impact her farming ventures. She, like many other farmers in Ozi, has mastered the art of accessing water, and with certified seeds, they gain. “The produce is not as I had anticipated because the rains were inadequate, but I’m prepared for the next planting season once the tides begin,” Nuru said.
Nuru is among the 245 farmers who, in 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, were supplied rice seeds under the European Union’s Community Resilience Building in Livelihood and Disaster Risk Management (Rebuild) project currently being implemented by Nature Kenya. They collectively produced 79,625kg of rice valued at Sh4,777,500, an increase from 2019 when 126 farmers were supplied with seeds.
“For the past one year, rice production in Ozi has actually increased with many farmers venturing into farming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike in other areas, the 2020 period which was marred with lockdowns saw more farmers venturing into rice farming because of the availability of seeds and water that naturally flows into their farms,” said George Odera, Nature Kenya’s Tana Delta project manager. Odera added that 2020 also saw a request for more rice seeds by farmers, which managed to increase production.
In 2019, the 126 farmers harvested 78,897kg of unprocessed rice, which reduced to 51,284kg after processing, valued at Sh3 million.
In 2020, the 245 farmers harvested 122,500kgk of rice, which upon processing produced 79,625kg valued at Sh4.7 million, an increase of Sh1.7 million in a year. The four-year project funded by the EU is in its second year.
Data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicates that there is still a deficit in rice production in the country.
The country has been importing rice from Pakistan, Tanzania among others. Rice imports increased from 507,998.7 tonnes in 2016 to 605,147.5 tonnes in 2020. In 2019, the country imported 608,609.1 tonnes.
Tana Delta sub-County officer Zilambe Kombo said there were two rice farming seasons when farmers could harvest up to 29 bags per acre. The farmers sell their rice locally.
But while Ozi’s magical natural irrigation where farmers do not need to use machines to irrigate their rice paddies remains a key advantage, the salty seawater has been a challenge.
Sea water intrusion has been intensifying with time with environmental experts linking it to climate change. The water from the ocean is too saline and when the levels of freshwater in the river Tana are low, the seawater flows easily along the river and into the farms.
Nature Kenya director Paul Matiku says while river Tana is key to farmers in coastal regions including Ozi, it supports hydroelectric power projects like the Seven Folks dams that include Kindaruma, Kiambere, Kamburu, Gitaru and Masinga dams.
While river Tana is the country’s longest river, traversing most arid and semi-arid countries, a lot of water is extracted to support irrigation activities that further reduce the flow downstream especially during the dry season.
“In such instances, there is little flow of water downstream to push back the ocean water. In turn, the ocean water pushes much further back into the land, causing havoc to farmers. It is also believed that sea water levels in the ocean have continued to rise as a result of climate change, a factor that continues to heighten cases of sea water intrusion in villages bordering the ocean,” Dr Matiku said.
Matiku added that while the Tana delta, where Ozi lies, is below the sea level, it makes it easy for seawater to flow into the farms, a situation that mostly results in losses as a result of a high concentration of salt that dehydrates the crops. Sea water can intrude as far as 30km into river Tana.
Erratic rain patterns and proposed construction of High Grand Falls Dam, a planned hydroelectric power project across River Tana, are expected to further alter the flow of the river.
As salty water increases, organisations, including National Drought Management Authority, Nature Kenya, CISP, GROOTS, Procasur, and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation have come up with rice seeds that can do well in extra saline conditions.
Kalro researcher John Kimani said the institution has been working with a number of international organizations to research rice seed varieties that can withstand the brackish conditions. The researchers, he says, have since produced a number of high-yielding rice varieties which are tolerant to both diseases and salinity.
Several varieties including those locally known as Komboka, Saro, Daurado Precoce, Nericas, CSR 36 and 08FAN10 have been developed through partnerships with organizations including the Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative and Japan International Cooperation Agency as well as the Ministry for Agriculture and Counties.
The new rice varieties are not genetically produced but are carefully selected by experts over the years. Although the varieties can withstand the brackish conditions, some cannot withstand the deeply saline conditions, which researchers say they are still studying.
“Through partnerships, we have been able to develop salinity-tolerant varieties which are high-yielding with good grain quality. Many of the varieties are also resistant to diseases like rice blasts, brown spots, and bacterial leaf blight. Particularly the CSR36 variety is currently common among farmers countrywide,” Kimani said.
Zilambe said the current new varieties have seen farmers increasing their production despite the low water volumes within the Tana river. “The new varieties are solving the challenges brought about by changing weather patterns characterised by low rainfalls,” he said.
Nyara said they have devised a way of sustaining access to the rice seeds through Mpozi Farmers Association, an umbrella organisation that brings together farmers within the area. “Once we harvest, we take back part of the seeds to the association for storage so that when planting season comes, we can easily access the seeds alongside those given by the conservation organisations we are working with,” Nyara said.
Last year, the institution also partnered with Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative to promote rice production in the Coastal region by contracting farmers to plant researched certified rice and supply seeds to Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service for certification.