Olga Otieno, a farmer in Ringa Homa Bay County, picks a sweet potato from a bunch she has harvested and washes it before putting in a crate.
She repeats the task untiringly until she fills the crate and moves to the next.
The farmer is happy as she has harvested 100kg of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from her quarter-acre.
Otieno delivers the produce to the nearby Organi Farm Ltd for processing into various value added products.
At the factory, several wooden crates of potatoes are stored at a makeshift shade as workers clean other tubers for processing.
“We work with 3,000 farmers spread across the western region, supplying us up to four tonnes of orange-fleshed sweet potato tubers at Sh14 per kilo,” says Benard Otieno, the Organi Ltd processing assistant director.
Otieno says supply of the produce depends on the growing season, as some farmers deliver up to two tonnes while others 200kg.
The company promotes the consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes because they are a good source of Vitamin A and Beta-carotene, much needed especially by women and children.
After the tubers are delivered at the factory, workers first start by sorting them.
“We leave out the smaller and rotten ones, also check for insect damages and non-orange-fleshed tubers. We then wash them to remove any dirt.”
Thereafter, the tubers are steamed for 45 to 60 minutes, and later they are placed on the rack to cool.
MARKETING SWEET POTATOES
“We then chop the steamed tubers into the puree machine which takes at least 20 minutes to process them. The sweet potato puree is packed in 5kg clear polythene bag and sealed in vacuum packing machine.”
Previously, the tubers were processed into flour for value addition.
However, Otieno says they realised they were losing 50 per cent of Beta-carotene present in orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
“After research in partnership with the International Potato Centre, we decided to steam the high fibre potatoes to preserve the Beta-carotene,” says Otieno, adding a kilo of sweet potato puree goes for Sh65.
The vacuum packing increases the product’s shelf-life. The puree is then kept in the freezer before it is taken to the market, notes Otieno.
They supply at least six tonnes of the puree every week to Tuskys supermarket in Nairobi. The retail outlets uses it to make bread, scones and buns.
In March, Organi set up a bakery unit to make orange-fleshed sweet potato bread and scones.
“We combine the puree with other ingredients like wheat and salt to make bread and scones in ratio of 2:3. At least 40 per cent of ingredient is the sweet potato puree,” he explains.
Every day, they make 250 loaves of bread of the 250g and 400g, which they sell from Sh40 and 50 packs of 10 scones, which they sell in Ringa at Sh90 each.
Organi, which has 17 workers, has Kebs certification for the bread and puree.
Consolata Bryant, a Kenyan and one of the three directors of the company, says the idea to start the factory followed Homa Bay governor’s visit to the US in 2014 in search of investors.
“During the forum, I learned of the issues sweet potatoes farmers were facing. We started the company to bridge the gap of marketing sweet potatoes,” says Bryant, who is based in the US and runs businesses.
STORING SWEET POTATOES
The three raised Sh15 million at the beginning to set the sweet potato factory, but have so far pumped into the facility Sh35 million in total.
The initial capital was used to buy seven acres, various equipment and set up the factory for sweet potato processing. Once farmers supply the produce, the payment is processed and they are paid after every two weeks.
Among the challenges the company faces include delayed payments by contractors, product inconsistency and constant power blackouts.
“Currently we are experimenting on an electric and solar-powered storage system for sweet potatoes. This is to help us process without fail,” she says.
Natural Resource Institute’s senior researcher, Dr Tanya Stathers, says most sweet potato farmers struggle with post-harvest losses.
“With an electric or solar storage powered system, a farmer can preserve tubers for up to four months so long as they are in a cool place free from moisture.”
She advises farmers to check for insect bites and tubers free from bruises before storing sweet potatoes.
Otieno, the sweet potato farmer, says while she supplies the produce to the factory, she sell to other farmers as well. A 30kg bag of sweet potato vines goes for Sh250. She sold 76 bags for Sh19,000 from her quarter acre.
Initially, she would get as low as Sh5,000 total income.