DELAY BLAMED ON COVID CRISIS

Migori sweet potato farmers excited about Sh110m processing plant

Processing plant to end years of suffering at the hands of middlemen.

In Summary

• Value chain actors are already engaging in strategy meetings ahead of its commissioning later in the year.

• It is already behind schedule as it was expected to start working between April and July last year.

Getonganya sweet potato factory
Getonganya sweet potato factory
Image: HANDOUT

Excitement is sweeping across the sweet potato-growing communities of Migori county ahead of the completion of a European Union-funded factory.

The Sh110 million processing plant being set up at Getonganya, Kuria West, will be commissioned later in the year. It is one of its kind in Kenya, a key legacy project for Governor Okoth Obado's administration, particularly in Kuria.

It is already behind schedule as it was expected to start working between April and July last year. County officials blame the delay on the inconveniences caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

“We are almost there. We have tendered for machines and once the process is over and installation is done, we will be good to go,” says Elijah Gambere, the chief officer in charge of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries.

Obado said, “This Covid-19 thing has really taken us back. Our people would be enjoying the sweet and medicinal bread made from their own crops. That notwithstanding, jobs, good prices for their potatoes and a good business environment will be created by the factory.”

Christine Mwita on her five-acre farm
Christine Mwita on her five-acre farm
Image: HANDOUT

Sweet potato value chain actors who include producers, vine multipliers, transporters, bankers, traders, aggregators and bakers are already engaging in strategy meetings ahead of the commissioning of the factory.

“We have to build the capacity of our key stakeholders in the value chain in readiness for the factory opening before the end of the year,” says retired chief Otaigo, a sweet potato farmer and member of the county’s Sweet Potato Value Chain Stakeholders Forum.

Furaha Marwa, who runs a bread baking cottage industry in Kehancha town, says: “The factory will definitely give us enough puree and flour for baking bread. In fact, we are happy that our people will start eating bread made of their own sweet potatoes, which are medicinal."

In an agreement signed in 2018 by the county government and the EU, the county was to provide Sh10 million and ground implementation logistics, while the EU granted Sh100 million for construction of factory structures, purchase of processing machines and capacity building of value chain players.

The deal was struck under the auspices of Instruments For Devolution Advice and Support, and the Local Economic Development.

Migori is listed as the second-largest producer of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP), with 11,312 hectares under cultivation. The neighbouring Homa Bay county is the leading producer with 24,268 hectares under production, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. 

Other sweet potato-producing counties are Bungoma (7,480ha), Busia (4,614ha), Siaya (4,150ha), Kisumu (2, 855ha), Kakamega (4277.5ha), Narok (1658.4ha), Bomet(1,210ha), Vihiga(913ha), Machakos (1,973ha), Meru (1,046ha).

Getonganya sweet potato factory
Getonganya sweet potato factory
Image: HANDOUT

Over the years, sweet potato production in Migori has been largely unattractive and done on a small scale due to lack of market. Middlemen had taken advantage of the lack of market to exploit peasants. This demoralising trend hurt production as farmers got low returns.

“We have the capacity to surpass all other counties in sweet potato production, but the problem has always been the market. We are actually happy with Okoth Obado’s government for seeing it fit to build a factory. We are optimistic that prices for our tubers will go up and the broker menace will be a thing of the past,” says Christine Mwita, a large-scale OFSP farmer.

"Brokers are very exploitative; they reap where they did not plant. Imagine, they give us as low as Sh1,500 for that long extended bag, which is about 250 to 350 kilogrammes," Christine said.

The unscrupulous middlemen have been having a field day in the region. But for many years, farmers have had to deal with them as there is no organised local market. The crop once bought is transported to Nairobi’s Ukulima open-air market where it is sold to traders, including exporters, for a fortune.

Christine Mwita on her five-acre farm
Christine Mwita on her five-acre farm
Image: HANDOUT

In 2017, Kenya exported 39,66kg of OFSP. This was less than the 81,431kg exported in 2016. The biggest destination is Somalia—more than 80 per cent of exports.

Kenya’s OFSP also fetches market in the United Kingdom and the EU, particularly Norway, France and Denmark. Other export destinations include Seychelles, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates.

And due to the growing global demand for the OFSP, which is classified as a nutritional crop, the Agriculture and Food Authority has embarked on regulating the industry.

“We are through with the gazettement of the crop laws, which include sweet potato regulations, and once officially launched, we will be able to step in and curb the broker menace. The farmers will in return get value for their crop,” says Beatrice Nyamwamu, AFA acting director in charge of standards and quality assurance.

According to the gazetted laws, the packaging of sweet potato tubers will be in 50kg bags and only well-calibrated weighing machines will be used.

Sales will only be carried out from designated aggregation centres approved by public health authorities, while farmers and producers will need to be registered with the county authorities.

“I'm hoping after the launching of the crop laws, the eyesore that is the extended bags and roadside selling of sweet potatoes will end promptly; otherwise, huge fines and prison sentences await those who will not toe the line,” Nyamwamu says.

The article is a production of the Concord Media Consultancy based in Migori. Email; [email protected]