While poor management and debilitating debts continue to run down State-owned sugar millers in western Kenya, and the government is yet honour its Sh2.6 billion pledge, farmers are abandoning cultivation of sugar cane for sweet potatoes in huge numbers thanks to the ready market and changing dietary patterns among health savvy consumers.
Growers said sugar cane is no longer a viable enterprise going by the dwindling returns and shrinking lands. Delayed payments are not making the crop any more attractive.
Two years ago Moses Furaha, a farmer in Bungoma County cleared off his two acre sugar cane plantation to try the little known orange flesh sweet potatoes (OFSP).
“I was fed up by the wrangles in the sugar sector that were yielding no fruit. After attending a training on OFSP and its value chain, I said why not try sweet potatoes,” said Mr Furaha.
Mr Furaha (his name is Kiswahili for happiness) is indeed a happy man who does not regret his decision.
For instance, the sweet potatoes tubers take shorter time to mature. Meaning he can have three planting seasons annually and in effect earn as many times.
“With sugar cane I have to wait for 24 months for it to mature. In addition, it was a nightmare to get payments in time,” he said.
Maureen Ouko a farmer in Migori County ditched sugar cane for sweet potato vines multiplication on her one-acre land as a source of income.
“Business is good since I embraced sweet potato vine multiplication. I earn Sh60,000 for the sale of sweet potato vines after every three months,” said Mrs Ouko.
Olgar Otieno a farmer in Ringa, Homa Bay is doing her final harvest as she prepares for the next planting season. She has harvested 100 kilogrammes of orange flesh from a 0.25-acre piece of land.
The farmer supplies sweet potatoes to Organi Farm Limited that processes sweet potato purée, bread and buns.
The potato variety is a fast-maturing type rich in beta carotene and vitamin A, which are essential for growing children and expectant women.
The company receives between 500 and 1,000 kilogrammes of produce depending on the season.
With a farmer base of 3,000 spread across the western region, they buy three tonnes of orange flesh sweet potato tubers at Sh14 per kilogramme.
They supply at least six tonnes to a leading supermarket in Nairobi. Consolata Bryant, director of Organi Farm Limited, says the idea to start the factory came after governors went to the United States to sell economic opportunities.
“During the forum, I learnt some of the issues sweet potatoes farmers were facing. We started the company to bridge the gap of marketing for sweet potatoes in the county,” says Ms Bryant.
International Potato Centre Value chain specialist Penina Muoki says the crop fills the gap in food security while at the same time providing a source of income to many farmers.
Currently, the organisation is working with 60,000 farmers in Busia, Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Nyamira, Kericho and Migori County.
“Orange flesh sweet potato is an alternative crop to maize, which is sometimes affected by fall armyworm or adverse weather conditions,” said Dr Muoki.
She added: “Farmers are prioritising sweet potatoes at the onset of rains, which they previously would do for maize. Areas in Migori and Webuye, which were dominated by sugar cane plantation, are fast turning into plantations for sweet potatoes.”
Sweet potatoes are fairly easy to grow but few Kenyans realise the full potential of the tuber.
“The sweet potatoes market is still developing because of the acceptability of OFSP.
‘‘We are also getting to penetrate in Muthurwa market and City Park, which is an achievement for the past two years,” said Dr Muoki in an interview last week.