Sweet potato production more than doubles in 2 years

Sweet potatoes are currently enjoying galloping growth in production and sales, as productivity and demand rise in tandem, with production up by 72 per cent last year and forecast to rise by a further 50 per cent this year, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ministry of Agriculture.

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, while the increased home consumption has helped reduce household spending on food in areas where the crop is grown by subsistence farmers. The market update released by USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture shows that national sweet potato output increased from 400,000 metric tons (MT) in 2010 to 690,000 MT in 2011, a 72 per cent rise.

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 combination of new sweet potato varieties, better multiplication of vines, and a comprehensive makeover of good agricultural practices is already providing dramatic results in terms of yields, crop quality, and improved incomes for farmers," said the update released by Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project, a USAID-supported program aimed at improving horticulture marketing. Yield per acre increased by 60 per cent, and there was also a 26 per cent rise in the national crop area, from 45,000 hectares in 2010 to 57,000 hectares in 2011, said Wilson Songa, the Agriculture Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture. Sweet potato has been grown traditionally in Western, Nyanza, and parts of Central and Coast regions , predominantly by smallholders.

But it now faces 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," said the update. 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.

USAID said there was an urgent need for capacity building on postharvest management, construction of storage facilities, improving the points of display, and designating specific areas in the markets for both sellers and buyers. Currently, orange fleshed, red skinned sweet potatoes have the highest market share, especially in the leading informal commodity markets in Nairobi, Kisumu and Eldoret. The sweet potatoes are mainly consumed fresh, with little processing yet being udnertaken. The Gikomba, on the eastern side of Nairobi’s Central Business District, currently hadnles the highest volume of sweet potatoes of any market, selling an estimated 29,000 tons in 2011 valued at $10m at current exchange rates.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter