In the scorching sun of Kogutu-Kochor in Karachuonyo, Homa Bay County, Mama Alfreda Odera is monitoring her one-acre parcel covered with cotton vegetation.
The retired primary school teacher is among the first group of farmers who are trying Genetically Modified Cotton (BT Cotton) ahead of the full rollout.
Her six weeks old crops are visibly healthy, and she is not amused.
“At this stage, I would be battling bollworms if I planted the local varieties,” she says as she turns the leaves of the plants as if she is looking for the worms.
About 20 kilometres away in Koredo village in Karachuonyo West, 86-year-old Paul Oyang and his two wives; Pelesia Akoth and Margaret Achieng are picking cotton lint from their two-acre farm.
As opposed to Odera, Oyang was not lucky to get the BT Cotton, and is harvesting what he says is his last of the local cotton variety.
He is a member of Pala Cotton Growers Cooperative Society, a local society that supports cotton farmers.
“We have heard of the new cotton variety (BT Cotton) and our hope is that we get the seeds in the next planting season,” he says.
Lack of access to certified seeds, low cotton prices, pests and diseases, high production cost and lack of county government focus on cotton farming, remain key challenges facing many cotton farmers in this area.
But despite the myriad challenges faced by cotton farmers in the County, Homa Bay produces upto 400 tonnes of cotton lint annually, with Executive Member for Agriculture, Aguko Juma saying this can go up if farmers get assured of a market and good prices.
“People stopped growing cotton after they realized there was no benefit,” Juma said.
Homa Bay is ranked among the top performing counties in cotton production. By last year, the farmers planted a hybrid type of cotton seed imported from India.
This year, the farmers have begun to transition to BT Cotton following the government’s approval of GMO cotton production in the country.
With proper farming practices, and favourable climate, the farmers hope the production is set to increase.
Teresa Okiyo, Head of Cotton Program at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Kibos Centre says under rain-fed agriculture, one can get upto 2,000 kilos of lint from an acre piece of land.
She says this can go as high as 5,000 kilos under irrigation agriculture, as insect attack which is the most common setback for cotton farmers having been sorted with BT Cotton.
She adds that despite the country having a potential of producing 200, 000 bales of cotton lint, the current production stands at a paltry 20, 000 bales.
“All cotton growing areas in the country such as Lake Region, Coast, Central, Eastern and Western regions have conducive environment for the growth of cotton. The plant requires 400 to 600 mm of rainfall during growing season,” she says.
According to Okiyo, fear of the unknown has previously gripped cotton farmers who want to venture into BT Cotton, but this is slowly being wiped out as trials show that there is no danger in growing the crop.
John Kwanya, the Chairman of Homa Bay County Cotton Value Chain Cooperative Union says despite the county having over 500, 000 acres of land conducive for cotton growing, a paltry 1, 200 was in use last year.
He attributes this to the challenges facing the sector, including low prices, and lack of incentives.
“We do not have a ginnery in Homa Bay. This means we have to transport our cotton to Baringo, Kituyi or Nairobi. This eats on the profit margin,” he said.
Today the farmers earns between Sh52 (about USD 0.5) and Sh58 (about USD 0.53) for a kilo of grade one cotton. Grade two fetches about half of this.
“When you look at the production cost, we estimate it at Sh50 (about USD 0.45) per kilo of cotton. This is why we want the price of cotton to go up to at least Sh70 (about USD 63) a kilo so that farmers can feel encouraged,” said Kwanya.
Okiyo however attributes the low prices to infiltration of middlemen who have been taking advantage of the farmers. She says breaking the chain would see farmers get better prices and improve their earnings from cotton.
But again, Kwanya is optimistic that the BT cotton is set to cushion the farmers as it has high production per unit cost.
He says one requires to plant one seed per hole at a spacing of 60 centimetres by 30 centimetres, and ensure the proper farming practices.
“The good thing with BT cotton is that it grows uniformly, it is resistant to bollworms and other adverse environmental impacts,” he says.
According to Kwanya, the union has been receiving cotton seeds from Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority (AFFA) and distributing to farmers free of charge through the 18 farmer societies in the region.
The county government provides extension services, while the farmers are expected to shoulder the other aspects of the production cost.
Moses Abade from Kanjira village has been a cotton farmer for the past decade. He is the chairman of Pala Cotton Farmers Cooperative Society and has seen the sector come out of shackles.
Despite being the main cash crop in Homa Bay, cotton has not received desired attention.
“We have everything that make this area favourable for cotton production; from climate to soil type. If things can be done right, all these jobless youths in Homa Bay county would be engaged and decently earning a living,” he says.
According to Abade, Pala is one of the four cooperative societies lined up for Sh10 million each from World Bank funding to enable them acquire tractor ploughs.
He says this will help with expanding land for cotton production since Sh4, 000 cost of ploughing an acre of land has proven too high for many farmers.
“With the tractors, we will be able to reduce the production cost by subsidizing the ploughing costs to member farmers,” he says.
It may however not be easy for the Homa Bay farmers to get a ginnery soon following a long court battle pitting the union and a private investor over the ownership of two ginneries.
Numerous promises by the County Department of Agriculture to set up new ginneries have not born fruits eight years into devolution.