Why traders are not to blame for unending low potato prices

Friday December 22 2017

Potato traders wait for customers in Githurai

Potato traders wait for customers in Githurai Market Nairobi. This is the leading in sell of fresh produce in Kiambu County. PHOTO| ANTHONY OMUYA|NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Irish potato is the second most important food crop after maize in Kenya. National production stands at a million tonnes from 128,000 hectares. Smallholder farmers contribute 83 per cent of the production. However, a lot of post-harvest losses are incurred through harvesting, marketing and processing inefficiencies.

Distribution of production include household consumption (10 per cent), fresh potato markets (70 per cent), seed potato (18 per cent) and processing (2 per cent). Per capita consumption in potato growing areas is 116kg while in other areas it is 30kg.

Although potato marketing from producers to traders is on a willing buyer-willing seller status, the traders are blamed for the low prices especially during harvesting time with producers always claiming that they are being exploited by the middlemen.

Maximum permissible weight to be carried by a worker

One key issue that stands out in potato marketing is packaging where traders insist produce be packed in extended bags weighing between 110 and 280kg but the cost remains almost the same for all sizes.

The packaging is despite the fact that the other agricultural inputs such as fertilisers are packed in 50kg bags. Besides, Section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2013 as read with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority (AFFA) Act 2013 states that the unit of measure of all agricultural produce is 50kg.

Any person in contravention of the law is liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh500,000 or imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both. In the 1967 report on the 51st session of the International Labour Conference held in Geneva, the recommended maximum permissible weight to be carried by a worker (adult male) was 50kg with efforts made to reduce it to 40kg.

Potato growing counties

The recommended weight for youth and women by the same consultative forum is far much less. This affects all weights and not necessarily agricultural produce. The recommendation applies to lifting and putting down of loads. If a person was to carry such weight, he requires training by a qualified instructor and also regular medical examination. Therefore, in addition to “exploitation” of farmers, the extended bags endanger the health of the worker.

Several explanations have been given by the traders in support of the vice. These include ease at which the shape can be lifted; the need to expose the top so that the quality of the potatoes can be assessed by a potential buyer; the excess bruising of the commodity when packed in smaller packages plus unavailability of bags that are of that measure. Some of the potato growing counties that include Nakuru, Nyandarua, Meru, Nyeri, Bomet, Keiyo Marakwet, Narok, West Pokot, Uasin Gishu and Kiambu tried to enforce the 50kg packaging law when counties were formed but the traders went to court to stop the implementation.

Agriculture Sector Development Support Programme

However, while traders have been blamed for the low potato prices, stakeholder consultative forums facilitated by the Agriculture Sector Development Support Programme (ASDSP) have revealed otherwise.

The root cause of the potato marketing challenge has been traced to growing of only one variety of potato, mainly Shangi. The potato has very many advantages in that it does well in almost all the potato growing counties and it can be used to prepare many products that include marsh, crisps, French fries (chips) and stew.

Inadequate proper storage facilities

However, the fact that it is planted at the same time by many farmers and harvested at the same period creates a temporary surplus. Due to its high perishability and inadequate proper storage facilities, farmers are forced to sell the produce at a through away price to get rid of it hence the unfavourable situation.

Farmers, therefore, have suggested that other varieties should be introduced to correct the situation. These varieties include Sagitta, Taurus, Voyager, Challenger, Dutch Robjin, Sherekea and Unica.

Therefore, introduction of more varieties; establishment of storage facilities; observing good agricultural practices such not harvesting immature crop plus availability of producer markets can shift the blame from the traders who are crucial in the potato value chain development.

Dr Mwirigi is the deputy principal, Ahiti-Nyahururu and a former Nyandarua ASDSP County Coordinator[email protected]