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Water-sparing rice farming proves viable in Kenya

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 25 Mar 2013 10:10 GMT
Moses Kareithi Mwangi works on his rice paddy in Mwea, Kenya. The system of rice intensification discourages flooding the paddy throughout the season, and encourages wider spacing of seedlings. ALERTNET/Isaiah Esipisu

MWEA, Kenya (AlertNet) – Faced with pressure on supplies of irrigation water due to climate shifts and an increasing population, rice farmers in four Kenyan irrigation schemes have adopted a new crop management system that allows them to grow their crops without flooding their paddies throughout the season.

The Kenyan government, through the Mwea Irrigation Agricultural Development Centre (MIAD), has borrowed a technique from India known as the system of rice intensification. It has proved to be an effective way of growing rice with limited water in this east African country.

The system has been widely practised for at least 10 years in Asian countries, where it has been shown to produce greater yields. But the MIAD initiative marks its introduction to Kenya.

Traditionally, Kenyan rice farmers have grown their crop in paddies kept under water from the time of planting to maturity. However, the new system moves them away from the old practice of flooding to a new approach of growing the crop in paddies that are intermittently dry, and planting the seedlings in lines and more widely spaced apart.

“It was not easy to change farmers from what they have always known (as) the correct practice to a completely new one that they have never seen anywhere else,” said Raphael Wanjogu, the principal research officer at MIAD.  

Wanjogu explained that the system of rice intensification (SRI) is part of the government’s response to changing climatic conditions, as well as a strategy for improving the country’s food security.

Rice is one of the major staples in Kenya, eaten by all communities. But the country produces only 110,000 tonnes of rice every year, much less than the 300,000 tonnes consumed annually, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. The shortfall is filled by imports from Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, Thailand and India.

The rice intensification programme aims to change that.


“I was one of the very first farmers to try out the SRI management in Mwea in 2009,” said Moses Kareithi Mwangi, who has been farming rice in Mwea for the past 10 years. “But it was not easy, because I received resistance right from my wife, my children, my neighbours and my friends.”

Mwangi was one of a number of farmers sponsored by the government to participate in a rice farming exchange programme in India.

Mwangi’s neighbours could not understand why he began transplanting very tender seedlings with only two leaves, and why he was using far fewer of them, planting one seedling per hole instead of five, as had always been done previously.

But following this new approach gave Mwangi a much bigger harvest than usual. From the quarter-hectare (0.6 acre) plot where he used to harvest nine 90 kg bags of rice, his yield increased to 12 bags. This prompted many more farmers to try out the new system during the 2011-12 planting season.

According to MIAD, farmers who have embraced SRI have realised up to nine tonnes of rice per hectare for the lower-yielding Basmati variety, compared to five tons by farmers who use conventional planting and irrigation techniques.

For the high-yielding IR variety, the new management system yielded over 17 tonnes per hectare, compared to nine tons without SRI practices.

Wanjogu is optimistic that by employing proven techniques such as SRI, Kenya can reduce its rice imports over time.

By contrast with the conventional practice of planting rice randomly with about 10 cm between each seedling, SRI provides for a wider spacing of about 25 cm to ensure that the plant receives sufficient sunlight and soil nutrients. Experts say this allows the plant to produce stronger stalks and more tillers (the grain-bearing branches that are able to grow independently from the mother plant).

Seedlings are also planted when they are younger – between eight and 15 days old – instead of the traditional method of planting 30-day-old seedlings.


Most importantly, SRI discourages the continuous flooding of paddies, which has been the traditional practice in paddy rice farming all over the world. All that is needed is to keep the soil moist, or to practise alternate wetting and drying, explained Wanjogu.

Scientists say that this enables the soil to hold air, and the resulting oxygen in the soil has been shown to help the plant roots to grow profusely and take in nutrients effectively.

According to MIAD, more than 2,000 farmers across the country are already practicing SRI in four rice irrigation schemes in Ahero, West Kano, Bunyala and Mwea. 

“I’m convinced that this is the way to go,” said Paul Njoroge Kuria, one of the farmers who initially resisted the system when it was introduced in the Mwea Irrigation Scheme. “We need more techniques that can guarantee us productivity.”

Environmental experts have warned that increasingly tough climatic conditions around the world are making it much harder to meet the growing demand for food.

“This calls for more adaptation techniques to enhance food productivity,” said Evans Kituyi, a climate change adaptation specialist at the International Development Research Centre in Nairobi.

Isaiah Esipisu is a journalist specialising in environmental and agricultural reporting. (

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