Potato a means to boost farmers’ incomes

Tuesday December 5 2017

sweet potatoes

Grace Wambui prepares to boil sweet potatoes for sale in Nyeri town on November 2, 2017. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By STEVE NEW

Under the USAid-funded ‘Feed the Future Programme’ being implemented through the  Kenya Agricultural Value Chains Enterprises, we ventured into the potato to increase productivity and income for smallholders.

Our  target was assisting about 500,000 farmers to improve incomes in five years. We picked the potato from our value chain studies, which indicate the tuber is a food security crop number two in Kenya after maize, and is mainly grown by smallholders.

Kenya is dependent on maize, which has been attacked by various pests and diseases, threatening the country’s food security. An attack by the Maize Lethal Necrosis disease and lately, by army worms forced a shift to alternatives and potatoes were a natural choice with bananas and sorghum.

A cost benefit analysis shows there is money to be made in potato farming. However, the value chain is encumbered in problems from start to finish. Studies show that seed, storage, agronomy, marketing systems, consumption and everything else about potatoes is loaded with challenges amidst a huge potential like it is in Europe, where they eat potatoes all the time, either as roast, boiled, or fried and more.

INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY

However, a lot has been done to sort out the problems and increase productivity. The most notable is the availability of a wider selection of varieties, but we are still far away.

Top hotels are still importing frozen chips due to lack of suitable varieties with the right texture, shape and taste.

The Potato National Potato Council of Kenya has published a catalogue detailing the available varieties as allowed by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, characteristics, production and the firms supplying seeds. The council has also created an online portal titled, ‘Viazi Soko’, where useful information on seeds and prices is available at the touch of a button. Embracing of technology in any industry is always a pointer to improvement.

Marketing systems are still disorganised, leading to disparities between farm and markets prices. Farmers are on the tail end of the bargain as brokers dictate farm gate prices.

BARGAINING POWER

Like in many other crops we are working with, it has been established that there is more potential in smaller units that are easier to manage, especially with small-scale farmers, who don’t have much alternative but make do with the land they have. All that is required is they get organised to give themselves bargaining power.

Storage remains a nightmare, creating an immediate need for county governments to build coolers for farmers for storage and marketing.

We cannot have a potato industry without refrigeration. You get the best prices six months after harvesting and for this to be achieved farmers need technologies such as small tractors for efficiency.

It is impossible to farm with hoes. We cannot be farmers without technology. With the right information on inputs and agronomy, Kenya can produce huge amounts of potatoes because there is a conducive environment not found in Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania and other countries.

PACKAGING

In packaging, extended bags are still in use despite a law prohibiting the exploitative practice. But in counties such as Meru, growers have kicked out the bags, showing it can be done. Farmers need to work together to set the rules of the game. Carrying potatoes in bags is not a good thing. Besides robbing farmers, it is tedious and damages the produce, escalating wastage.

 Embrace technology; carry potatoes in large bins that stock up to half-a-ton. There will be no damage. The secret lies in working as an industry. Inconsistent supply of products affects the chain. Motivating farmers is the surety of a market.

 Dr New is chief of party, USAid Kaves. [email protected]