The Kenyan government is formulating a policy to position the potato as a strategic crop, to increase the country's food security and job creation. The potato is Kenya's second most important food crop after maize, employing more than 2.5 million people, and has a higher yield per square metre than maize and three harvesting seasons a year.
However, the absence of policy, storage, marketing and value-addition strategies has limited its potential to earn revenues and foreign exchange, with potato fields often producing little due to price hikes, climate change, poor quality seed and improper post-harvest practices.
But the government has now stepped up its commitment to the crop, on the basis of its significant potential. It recently formed the National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) and has mandated it to formulate a new policy to guide the growth of the industry. At the same time, the International Potato Centre, CIP, an international research institution headquartered in Nairobi is designing a potato seed master plan, which the government has promised to adopt.
CIP has already conducted an extensive seed market survey, gathering information on seed demand and availability from over 1300 growers from all the major potato-production districts in Kenya, and is now working with both private and public sector partners to introduce a new technology that produces substantially higher numbers of potato seed, in the form of the mini-tubers from which new potatoes are grown.
The technology is know as aeroponics, and involves growing the seed tubers in mid-air, to deliver disease-free tubers with much higher multiplication rates than conventional methods. In close collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), CIP is also working to test and release varieties of potatoes for smallholder farmers that are resistant to late blight, the most serious disease threatening potatoes worldwide.
Late blight, which led to the famous Irish Potato famine, is caused by the fungus-like oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, and spreads through spores transported in the wind or the use of infected tubers. The government of Kenya has committed to supplying disease-free planting material to farmers along with subsidizing farm inputs, organizing markets, and strengthening farmers association.
“Lots of potential lies in potato farming, but for a very long time government has neglected the crop, so no major interventions have taken place, yet this is one of the most promising crop, especially at a time like this when we are talking of having alternatives to feed the nations and provide extra income for our farmers,” said Nduire Waiganjo, a senior scientist at KARI.
Potato's dwindling returns coupled with erratic prices have increasingly seen a shift to more lucrative crops. Moreover, the few farmers who have stuck with the crop have been at the mercy of brokers who have cashed in on farmers' desperation to dispose of the perishable commodity quickly. Recently, potato farmers in Kinangop pleaded with the government to intervene and control the farm gate prices of potatoes to protect them from the brokers.
There is already a law requiring that a full bag of 110 kg of potato must be flat at the top, instead of an extended point, but municipal council authorities have failed to enforce the law and farmers have been forced to fill with extra potatoes to satisfy the brokers, from a position where they do not have access to storage facilities that would position them to negotiate.
Thus while a standard bag of potatoes sold at the farm gate or wholesale should be 110 kg, the extension of the bag by brokers makes the weight jump to an average of 200 kg. Since farmers sell per bag and not per kilogram, they make heavy losses.
The brokers then repackage the bag to generate an additional 90 to 100 kg even before they factor in their profit margin, making more than 100 per cent in profit. The result has been that the cost of a kilogram of potatoes in an extended bag averages Sh10 while in an organized market where brokers are not involved, the minimum price per kg is Sh20.
"The difference is too high and the exploitation is unbearable, which is why a serious government participation would be really welcome,” said Victor Ngunjiri, a potato farmer in Nyandarua.
The intervention being rolled out in stages is expected to triple output by end of 2013, mainly “due to the roll out of new varieties, increased awareness through farmer field schools, and the creation of more markets for farmers,” said Waiganjo.