Mercy Ndila sits on the moving tractor, her eyes switching between the disc plough attached behind the machine and the unploughed land ahead.
On this day, she is ploughing Dorcas Koli’s farm in Wayani Village, Kitui County, as the farmer and her neighbour trail the machine sowing maize, cow peas and green grams seeds, just before the rains start.
Such scenes are now common across the country as county governments and development agencies push small-scale farmers to embrace mechanised agriculture by offering affordable services.
Many farmers in counties like Bungoma, Kisumu, Machakos, Makueni, Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu have thus ploughed their land for the first time using tractors as the machines create jobs for drivers, mechanics and cleaners.
The big question: will tractor use translate to more food production?
The tractor hire services bring back memories of 1960s to 80s when the national government ran a similar programme, which later collapsed.
“This is the first time we’ve used a tractor on our farm. Over the years, we’ve been ploughing with either muscle-power or an ox-drawn plough. It took several days to do the work,” says Dorcas, who sold three chickens to pay Sh1,000 fee for the service.
Kitui county government has so far bought 40 new tractors and distributed them in various wards for the programme. Farmers in need of the service, including Dorcas, have been identified, and the tractor moves around tilling their land.
The Sh1,000 fee per acre is far less than the Sh1,500, which private tractor owners charge, on average.
Telling from the number of beneficiaries and those wait-listed, the subsidised tillage has increased the appetite for tractor services among smallholder farmers in the county.
Governor Charity Ngilu says the service addresses a gap in the access to agricultural machines among farmers. “Our plan is to increase the tractors to at least two per ward and also have trailers attached to them so that farmers can deliver their produce to markets and aggregation centres without difficulties,” she says.
In Trans Nzoia, Agriculture county executive Mary Nzomo says that some 2,060 farmers have been reached by the county agriculture mechanisation programme.
To use the machines to plough, a farmer parts with between Sh2,200 and Sh2,800 per acre. Harrowing new land costs Sh1,800, old land Sh1,500, planting Sh1,000, chiselling Sh2,500, boom spraying Sh900, furrow opening Sh900 and transportation Sh1,000.
She adds that the county has a number of tractors and implements such as disc ploughs, chisel ploughs, harrows, rotavator, planters, boom sprayers, grass cutters, rake and balers, which fall short of the demand.
The programme, she says, was started to promote conservation agriculture and increase efficiency in farm operations.
In Kisumu, some 25 tractors and associated gadgets that include a ripper, thresher, ploughs and rotovators, worth Sh150 million, were recently supplied by Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and the national government to help commercialise rice farming.
Farmers at West Kano and Ahero irrigation schemes are accessing the machines, which are managed by the county government, at a subsidised rate of Sh1,500 per acre.
George Omondi, a rice farmer in Ahero Irrigation Scheme, says the machines have lowered the cost of tilling land, but farmers are grappling with frequent breakdowns due to poor management.
“Some disc ploughs and rotovators have broken down and have not been repaired. I ask the county government to intervene,” he says.
Western Region National Irrigation Board senior scheme manager Joel Tanui says that initially, farmers would pay Sh4,000 to till an acre.
“The high charges raised the cost of production. With Sh1,500, they are able to till the land throughout the season, and pay Sh50 through the co-operatives to transport the rice from farms,” Tanui says.
In Bungoma County, farmers pay Sh3,000 to plough new land, Sh2,500 for old land, reploughing Sh2,000 and harrowing is Sh1,800.
Robert Lusweti, the head of Agricultural Mechanisation Centre at Mabanga Agricultural Training Centre, says the programme has transformed farming in the county.
“We first bought nine tractors, but the demand from farmers was overwhelming. We procured the machines at between Sh4 million and Sh5 million each,” Lusweti says.
Director of Agriculture Onesmus Makhanu says the county receives Sh22 million in revenue annually from the programme.
In Makueni, the only tractor serves farmers in Kasikeu ward because they requested for it during the 2016 budget proposals.
“The tractor is always overbooked. Most smallholder farmers are aware of the role of modern agricultural practices such as mechanisation and the use of hybrid seeds in boosting farm production,” says Edelquinn Ndolo, the leader of a committee of 12 local farmers, which manages the tractor.
Ndolo says that the machine tills between 150 and 200 acres of farmland per season.
“This translates to more than 100 farmers from Kasikeu Ward per season. Target beneficiaries of the tractor service are identified in advance, and a schedule of how and when the farmers will be served is published.
“We charge Sh1,800 per acre for disc ploughing and Sh1,500 per acre for ripping. This money is remitted to the county fund from where it’s used to keep the tractor running.”
The ward has recorded increased maize production, says Ndolo, especially in the last three harvest seasons, and the county government has come up with a plan to build Sh10 million maize flour mill at Kwothithu in the ward.
She attributes the success partly to the use of tractors, but farmers have also embraced hybrid seeds and in the last seasons, there were good rains.
At a recent forum on mechanisation in Nairobi, Food and Agriculture Organisation assistant representative in Kenya Robert Allport that said use of machines at the grassroots would boost growth in agricultural productivity.
“Mechanisation is the part of agriculture where innovation is most likely to happen. However, when we talk about mechanisation, we need to focus not only on the machines, but also on financial mechanisms that enable farmers to access machines already available in the market.”
Most counties only offer tractor ploughing services, but a few have extended to boom sprayers, conservation agriculture planters, subsoilers, rippers, planters and earth movers.
Nasirembe Wanjala, the head of the Agricultural Mechanisation Research Programme at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Machakos station, lauds the counties’ efforts but notes most of them have focused on ploughing services.
“Mechanisation does not start and end with tillage. Planting, the application of chemicals and fertilisers on the crops, harvesting and transportation of the produce to the market should also be done using machines for farmers to reap the maximum benefits.”
The national government tractor hire services collapsed in the 1980s due to mismanagement.
Insiders tell stories of how Cabinet ministers and other senior civil servants would order fleets of the tractors and combine harvesters from the agriculture mechanisation service stations to work in their plantations for free.
This denied not only deserving farmers the opportunity to use the machines, but also the government money to run the scheme.
Nasirembe has misgivings about the current county tractor hire services, noting they are prone to mismanagement.
“My honest take is that tractor hire services should be left to private entrepreneurs. But for counties to succeed in running the services, the programmes should not be managed by government officials but farmers themselves,” he says.
“The devolved units should create a fund for the tractor service to make them responsive to the day-to-day running needs of the machines and the programme.”
Wanjala notes that the use of machines in agriculture significantly improves the quantity and quality of production, enhances efficiency, reduces the cost of labour, and releases labour that is free to be used in other activities.
However, he notes that use of farm machinery only is not enough to boost production as there are other factors that include irrigation, quality seeds, use of fertiliser, pests and diseases, which counties have not addressed.
Additional reporting by Stanley Kimuge, Elizabeth Ojina and Gerald Bwisa.