Farmers reap from prisoners’ potato tomato cross breed

Thousands of Kenyan farmers are reaping from an innovative technology that allows them to grow tomatoes and potatoes on the same stem through grafting, having first been innovated and trialed by inmates at Kamiti prison in 2010, a move which is now seeing farmers save on input costs and maximize use of otherwise scarce land which is being threatened by population explosion . The prisoners chanced on the technology when going through Chinese literature and with help from research institutions put theory into practice.

The hybrid crop dubbed pomato allows tomato to be grown on the potato rootstock producing tomatoes on the top and potatoes under soil from the same plant.  Since the crop received a nod from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate services, responsible for plant certification for mass distribution, the prison has recorded brisk business in sale of the cross breed and in training thousands of farmers in grafting. “So far we have trained over 4,000 farmers through agricultural shows and those who come to visit the prison gardens,” says Corporal Manene of the Kiambu Prison where the pomato was trialed.

Agricultural institution Bridgenet Africa however estimated that over 50,000 farmers in the country are already employing this technology thanks to the fast rising farmer field schools and farmer exchange programmes where new knowledge is shared. A farmer starts with cutting the potato bud, dissecting the stem for two inches from the bud and inserting the wedge-shaped flowering tomato scion into the dissection before tying it up with a polythene strip. The dissection is done high above the soil level to prevent bacteria and disease-causing organisms from infecting the upper plant. After grafting the tomato leaves continue making food for the potato tubers beneath the soil. “The crop doesn’t compromise on the quality of the produce at all,” says Dr Mwiti from KARI.

A grafted pomato seedling sells at Sh50. Ordinarily, this method of grafting can easily be practiced even by lay farmers upon a two day orientation. Early and late potato and tomato bright caused by harsh humid conditions and bacteria wilts that affects the root system are the worst nightmares to these farmers in the country where fungicide and pesticide costs prove unaffordable to many poor farmers. For example Potato blight is responsible for over 40 percent of the yield losses while tomato blight account to over 30 percent in tomato losses. The new breed however ensures that the pests and diseases are halved due to grafting. A taste of the yields prove to the consumer that their quality and size has not been affected by the technology. “A farmer can seek guidance from us or else come for potted seedling that is already grafted at our Kiambu prison farm,” says Corporal Manene.

“I have been planting fresh produces in my quarter of an acre land and was struggling with space. I was among the pioneer farmers who embraced pomato and I have had three harvests. In each harvest I have managed to get a 90kg bag of potatoes and a 90kg bag of tomatoes on my quarter acre piece of land. Before i used to get quarter of a bag from each, and I have managed to save land space for my other produces like kales,” says Mueni a farmer neighbouring the prison who supplies Kiambu town residents with fresh produce. “It has also meant that I dont go to the market to look for other fresh produces since land is there to diversify,” she adds.

The prison's realization that food is increasingly becoming important even as farming land shrinks due to commercialization now says it hopes to come up with innovations that allow maximum yields in small pieces of land. The next milestone for the prison is a project to graft tomato with sweet potatoes as the latter has a higher lifespan compared to potatoes.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter