Superior sweet potato vines promise farmers 5x more yields than maize

Over 60,000 farmers in Nyanza and Western Kenya are set to receive superior sweet potato vines with ability to produce higher yields within small land portions, assisting them break away from over reliance on maize that has cost them their soil fertility and income.

In a place where farming land is predominantly limited, yield within a small portion of land counts. An eighth of an acre is capable of producing some 500kilos of the new sweet potato compared to maize that only yields 100 kilos in the same area.             

The project chaperoned by One Acre Fund, a NGO working with farmers, is geared towards ensuring food security and diversification of crops among farmers in an area that has traditionally recorded poor yields thanks to over reliance on low quality cereals and infertile soils blamed on long use of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.

 “Sweet potato is emerging as an important food security crop. In sub-Saharan Africa the sweet potato growth is outpacing the growth of other staple crops. They are drought-tolerant and contain more calories per unit than maize or Irish potato plus higher protein content than cassava,” said Nicholas Daniels a communication officer with One acre Fund.

Most farmers in western Kenya rely heavily on maize since which has served as their staple crop for decade. This coupled with poor farming techniques like over tillage has dwindled yields threatening thousands of livelihoods.

 “One Acre Fund wants to enable farmers to diversify the crops they cultivate, primarily for food security and nutrition, but also for commercial reasons. Sweet potato is the best suited crop for diversification in this area,”said Daniels.

The project is being initiated near Kitale on a 95,000 acres piece of land which was leased from a large scale commercial farmer for the multiplication of the vines. Daniels also noted that the improved high-yielding varieties, sourced from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), will guarantee better produce to the farmers. The multiplication site is intended to benefit over 60,000 farmers in the region.

Although the sole focus of the project is to ensure food security among the families in the region, experts are pushing for the commercialization of the surplus as market for the sweet potato rise by the day across the country and regionally. For example, more than 20 per cent of sweet potato farmers are now commercialising their crops, selling sweet potatoes directly to the markets to meet the increasing demand across East Africa, according to a survey released last year by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ministry of Agriculture.

“We expect the produce to largely be consumed by the farmers and their families, although strong markets for sale of sweet potatoes exist across Western and Nyanza. Ultimately the decision on whether or not to sell is with the farmers,” stated Daniels.

The Fund which has farmers enrolled through their various village groups operates in various counties of Western and Nyanza including Kakamega, Busia, Siaya, Homabay Kisii among others. The groups contain between 15-30 members and one is enrolled after payment of Sh200. The Fund intends to distribute the vines to the registered farmers through their village groups freely and over 60,000 farmers are projected to benefit from this before the end of the year.

Sweet potato is Kenya’s third most widely consumed food after maize and potatoes, but is considered one of the "orphaned" crops, along with cassava, amaranth and millet, because of the relative lack of research and promotion it has been accorded, compared to crops like maize and rice.
However, such crops are now receiving renewed attention thanks to their higher nutritional value, low input requirements and drought tolerance, all of which put them ahead of both maize and rice as aides to food security at a time when climate change is having an increasing impact on rainfall patterns.

The crop is currently facing a much broader market as awareness rises on its advanced nutritional value, which can deliver a major contribution to healthy living. "The global market is growing every year, presenting opportunities for export by sea, as long as the respective varietal and quality requirements are met," read part of the survey.

The crop rarely requires pesticides or fertilizers making it cheaper to grow. But the competitiveness project has identified poor post harvesting handing, storage and transport from farm to market as the main challenges in earning better commercial returns.

Written by Julius Omondi for African Laughter