Joseph Kamau, an Irish potato farmer from Nyandarua County, grows the crop on two acres.
The farmer has been growing the crop for three years but the unpredictable weather and low market prices are giving him a hard time.
Frost, drought and heavy downpours are among extreme weather conditions that worry him.
Potatoes take about four months to be ready for harvesting, thus, can be grown twice a year.
“Frost affects the crop especially when it is blossoming. At that stage, the flowers will drop, thus, they will not fruit,” Kamau, 28, narrated during a recent potato forum at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Kabete in Nairobi, adding that during high rainfall seasons, the tubers rot.
Potato prices depend of three major factors
Experts at the forum advised him and other farmers to grow trees around his farm to shield the crops from frost.
Finding market for his produce is another big challenge that he has to contend with because potatoes are among the few crops that farmers do not sell directly to consumers.
Middlemen buy from them at throw away prices, mostly on the farm because they are bulky to transport.
“Ferrying potatoes to the market is hectic, so we would rather sell to middlemen at between Sh1,500 to Sh2,000 per sack than incur huge transport costs,” said Kamau.
Potato farmers were advised to form groups which they can use to bulk their produce and cut transport expenses.
Potato prices depend largely on three factors, according to Kamau. Those are who is buying it, its availability in the market and the sizes of the produce.
“We have been growing the same potato seeds over and over again by recycling seeds, the harvest is now dwindling,” said Kamau, who grows Shangi variety.
Addressing the biggest challenge in potato farming
Paul Njuguna, an expert from the Molo-based Agricultural Development Corporation, which is in-charge of multiplying potato seeds, said there are about eight potato seed varieties namely Ambition, Arizona, Arnova, Kenya Karibu, Kenya Mavuno, Shangi, Sherekea and Tigoni.
A 50kg bags of seeds is sold at Sh1,700 and Sh2,500.
“Seed production has been a challenge but we are addressing that and we will soon devolve to county level where farmers can easily access the seeds,” Njuguna said.
There are 13 major potato producing counties namely Bomet, Bungoma, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kiambu, Meru, Nakuru, Narok, Nyandarua, Nyeri, Taita-Taveta, Trans-Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and West Pokot.
Wachira Kaguogo, an agricultural economist and the CEO of National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK), reckoned that there is a disconnect along the potato value chain, whereby farmers have no idea of what the market needs and where to find the market while processors, on the other hand, have no idea where to find the products.
The biggest challenge affecting the potato sector is the inadequate availability of quality seeds, production constraints, pests and diseases, poor natural resource management and marketing systems of the potato that are not organised or integrated, he said.
Producers, transporters, and traders are also fragmented and tend not to cooperate. This fragmentation has led to disarray.
What the processors want
Reyaz Uddin, the manager of Norda Industries Ltd, a food processing company behind the Urbanbitez crisps, noted that there is a huge market for potatoes. However, what most potato farmers grow is not what the processors want.
“In our case, we use the Dutch varieties for making crisps but we cannot get enough of the variety because of underproduction,” Uddin said, adding lack of consistent supply is also a big challenge.
He further noted that there hasn’t been a platform where farmers and processors would meet to discuss challenges affecting them.
He asked farmers to consult with processors on what they need before planting their produce.
Potato is grown by about 800,000 smallholder farmers in the country, and contributes over Sh50 billion to the economy, according to NPCK.