[Column] Dr. Steve New: Why potato farming is big business for Kenya
Under the USAID funded Feed the Future Programme that is being implemented in Kenya through the Kenya Agricultural Value Chains Enterprises, we ventured into potato to increase productivity and income for smallholders as part of our target of assisting about 500,000 farmers to improve incomes across selected agricultural value chains in five years.
We picked the potato from our value chains studies which indicate the tuber is big from the beginning to the end of the chain and positioned as food security crop number two in Kenya after maize and mainly grown by smallholders.
Kenya is dependent on maize which has been attacked by various pests and diseases threatening the country’s food security. An attack by Maize Lethal Necrosis disease and lately army worms forced a shift to alternatives and potatoes were a natural choice together with bananas and sorghum among other crops as alternatives.
A cost benefit analysis shows there is money to be made in potato farming. However, the potato value chain is encumbered in problems from start to finish.
Studies show that seed, storage, agronomy, market systems, consumption and everything else about potato is loaded with challenges amidst a huge potential to create a robust sector like it is in Europe where they eat potatoes all the time either as roast, boiled, fried and more.
However, a lot has been done towards sorting these problems to increase productivity, the most notable being availability of a wider selection of varieties but we are still far.
Top hotels are still importing frozen chips due to lack of suitable varieties with the right texture, shape and taste. The Potato National Potato Council of Kenya has done a commendable job of publishing a catalogue detailing the available varieties as allowed by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, characteristics, production and the firms supplying the seeds.
In addition, the council has created an online portal titled Viazi Soko where useful information for example on seeds and prevailing prices is available at the touch of a button.
The milestones are indicative of positive steps towards creating a robust potato sector in Kenya. Embracing of technology in any industry is always a pointer to improvement.
Marketing systems are still disorganized leading to disparities between farm and markets prices. Farmers are on the tail end of the bargain as brokers dictate the farm gate prices.
All in the chain need to understand that everyone needs to make money for sustainability.
Like in many other crops we are working with, it has been established that there is more potential in smaller units that are easier to manage especially with small farmers who don’t have much alternative but make do with the land they have.
All that is required is they get organized to give themselves bargaining power.
Storage remains a nightmare in the value chain creating an immediate need for county governments to build coolers for farmers to use for storage and marketing. We cannot have a potato industry without refrigeration.
You get best prices six months after harvesting and for this to be achieved farmers need technologies like small tractors for efficiency. It is impossible to farm with jembes. We cannot be farmers without technology.
With the right information on inputs and agronomy Kenya can produce huge amounts of potatoes because there is a conducive environment not found in Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania and many other countries.
When it comes to packaging, extended bags are still in use despite a law prohibiting the exploitative practice. Reports indicate that in counties like Meru, growers have successfully kicked out the bags showing it can be done.
Farmers need to work together to set the rules of the game. Carrying potatoes in bags is not a good thing. Besides robbing farmers, it is tedious and damages the produce escalating wastage. Embrace technology; carry potatoes in large bins that stock up to half a ton.
There will be do damage at all. The secret lies in working as an industry. Inconsistent supply of products affects the chain. Motivation of a farmer is the surety of a market.
Dr. Steve New is the USAID Kenya Agricultural Value Chain Enterprises, KAVES, Chief of Party