For the better part of the last three decades, Narok County was known for its large-scale wheat farming, and by extension, the scores of wheat millionaires who patronised exclusive hotels in the Masai Mara and Nairobi.
From the 70s when cultivation started up to mid 1993, people from all over the country and Tanzania trooped to the area, the largest wheat producer in Kenya, to get a slice of what was known as “brown gold”.
Among those who rushed to cash in on the venture were prominent personalities and big companies, some which were listed in the then Nairobi Stock Exchange.
During harvests of the “brown gold”, the wheat barons would smile all the way to the bank and locals positively felt the trickle down effects.
Most commercial building in Narok town and other trading centres were built from proceeds of wheat farming.
With liberalisation of the economy in the early 90s, investment in the hitherto lucrative “brown gold” started going south.
It meant the end of farmers protection and stabilisation of prices which opened flood gates to imports, leading to poor prices of the grain grown locally as millers opted for cheap imports.
Prominent personalities and influential figures in the former Kanu administration abandoned wheat farming and instead opted for other ventures, leaving local farmers at the mercy of importers whose dumping controlled prices.
Today, those who borrowed millions of shillings to finance wheat production are languishing in poverty after their multi-million shilling investments including land were auctioned by financial institutions including the State-owned Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) after they defaulted on loan repayments.
Joseph Kantet, 67, who used to till more than 120 acres in Olorien area near Ololulung’a trading centre in Narok South sub-county between 1978 and 1997, has nothing to show for his hard work.
Kantet, a widower, now depends on his grandchildren for virtually every need after part of his 346 acres of land was auctioned by a bank to recover Sh36 million accumulated loans he borrowed to finance wheat production in 2002.
Before his fortunes dwindled, Kantet was a regular patron in exclusive lodges in the Masai Mara Game reserve, Nairobi and the Coast where he would lavish friends and even strangers with expensive liquor.
“We were in a class of our own. But when the government was forced by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund out of price controls, we were consigned to a territory we never thought we would find ourselves in,” he lamented.
Kantet says his woes started when he borrowed Sh2 million from a commercial bank followed by two other loans that he was unable to service because of poor production prices.
“After a few years, it accumulated to Sh36 million, which I could not service, leading to part of my land being sold,” he says.
Shortly after his family land was auctioned, his wife died, which he suspects, was as a result of blood pressure occasioned by the change of fortunes.
His relatives, he says, would occasionally chip in and help whenever they could.
He says he resisted temptation to sell the remaining family land to cater for his family’s immediate needs, including educating his children.
“If I did that, I would have lowered my standing in the community because selling of land was then taboo. Climbing down the ladder of life is not easy. It requires a thick skin,” says Kantet.
Another once prominent farmer, Koros ole Munka, 58, from Nkorinkori area is now a pauper, who has been deserted by relatives and close friends who were by his side when he had money.
The once well-fed man reminisces the good life he lived with his family comprising nine children and two wives in mid 80s to mid 90s when wheat farming was a well-paying occupation.
“I used to be a member of Nairobi Club. I remember buying an influential minister Scotch whisky in the club. Farmers were envied by many,” he says with nostalgia.
After things went haywire, a desperate Munka sought employment to eke out a living.
He was employed by a prominent Asian wheat farmer in Olepolos area within the former expansive wheat belt as a guard for four years.
“I had to take up the job to fend for my family. It was demeaning but I had no choice,” says Munka, who was fortunate because AFC waived his loan after an intervention by a former powerful provincial commissioner.
He is now a wheat and land broker in Ololulung’a, Oloshapani, Nkorinkori and adjacent areas.
There are many other farmers who cashed in on wheat production while it lasted, but have nothing to show because of lack of investment, effects of liberalisation of all sectors of the economy and climate change.
After years of production, farmers hardly produce enough because of rain failure, too much rain, pests and stem rust.
Most farmers who are still in business are producing less than 10 bags of 90 kilogramme per acre.
Others who live from hand-to-mouth and have nothing else of economic value to engage in have ventured into maize farming.
Maize matures in about four months. But still, market for maize depends on imports and other challenges facing wheat production.
When the venture was rewarding, a majority of farmers would produce more than 40 bags on the same unit.
Land use changes is working against production with hundreds of acres that was once under wheat being turned into other purposes like real estate development.
Sub-division of land has also led to shrinking of production as many people keep off farming because it is no longer paying.
Duncan Totona, a farmer in Olopito area near Narok town and who has been in the business for 12 years, says most of the people he started farming along with have opted out because of vagaries of weather, poor seeds, lack of government’s commitment to control the grain imports, pests that are resistant to most pesticides and lack of financial support from the government.
Lack of financial muscle, he says, has seen those who default on loans put on the Credit Reference Bureau, rendering them unable to access loans from all other institutions.
“Cost of inputs exceeds most people’s ability. With the absence of government support like the Guaranteed Minimum Returns and friendly loans interest rates are working against keeping farmers in farms,” he says.
Lekina Kamento, the South Rift Cereal Growers Association chairman and who is also a wheat farmer in Narok, says most locals opted out of wheat farming, leaving few outsiders in it because of a variety of reasons.
“Accessing low interest rates loans is still an elusive dream. So are cheap farm inputs.
All these together with the lack of commitment to check on imports by raising import duties are standing in the way of making agriculture a profitable business,” he says.
Jackson Kamoe, Mau Forest Conservation Trust chairman, says the two decades long destruction of the water tower has been responsible for a decline in wheat production.