A Sh14.5million potato seed multiplication plant is being built to provide quality seed
The plant in Ol Kalou will address post-harvest losses, while cold storage will address more problems
Washington Murathe paces his five-acre potato farm at Charagita in Ol Joro Orok, Nyandarua county. Tens of labourous are busy with forks, harvesting the crop.
Tens of white sacks filled with potatoes dot the land, the same way thousands of rejected tubers decorate the freshly dug soil. The rejects are a result of various potato diseases, while others have been destroyed by worms.
At one corner of his farm, women are busy sorting a mountain of potatoes. Beside them, brokers are busy packaging the potatoes in extended bags popularly known as ‘kata nyoka bila sumu’, which constitute two bags joined together and a net extension at the top.
The brokers are finding it tough weaving the net extension on the 18-foot-long bag, hence have dug two-foot holes where the bags are placed to make their work easier. Sometimes they go to the farms with beer or soda crates, which they step on to comfortably reach the top of the extended bags.
A casual observer would expect Murathe to be rejoicing at the prospect of making good profit, but he is not. He occasionally shakes his head, a clear indication of sweat and toil not rewarded.
The father of three has been growing potatoes since 1995. But just like most other potato farmers in Nyandarua and Kenya at large, his sweat enriches brokers and middlemen, confining him to the shackles of poverty. In good times, ‘kata nyoka bila sumu’ goes for up to Sh4,000 or Sh5,000. But sometimes, it fetches as low as Sh1,000 or even less.
Sometimes, he keeps his mature crop in the farm, waiting for better prices, and this subjects his produce to destruction by worms, especially during dry periods.
Lack of satisfied potato seed has also aggravated the farmers’ woes, as it leads to many diseases. Seed recycling leads to a decrease in seed quality, hence, low potato yields.
“Sometimes you get only 10 bags of potatoes from one acre, yet an acre should yield 100 bags and above,” he says.
Lack of cold storage exposes farmers to untold post-harvest losses.
COST OF PRODUCTION
To successfully grow one acre of potatoes, Murathe injects between Sh75,000 and Sh80,000. This includes the cost of inputs including seed, fertiliser and other chemicals, and labour.
To recoup his investment and make some profit, each acre should earn him Sh120,000 and above. He says the best returns he has ever got for an acre after waiting for about four to five months is Sh20,000.
“Sometimes you are forced to sell some property to keep farming after a loss. There is a time I incurred a loss of Sh400,000,” he says.
Potato broker Peter Mbuthia blames the government for the farmers’ woes. He says the government has never been willing to regulate the industry. He agrees with Murathe that potato packaging and pricing should be standardised.
Mbuthia says brokers sympathise with the exploited farmers “but there is nothing we can do since that is the way it is”.
A popular saying has it that nothing lasts forever. The Nyandarua potato farmers’ woes could soon be a thing of the past.
The national government, through the NYS and Prisons departments, in February launched a potato seed production unit in Nyandarua. The Sh14.5 million project, which is a partnership between the Interior and Public Service ministries, was jointly launched by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i and his Public Service counterpart Margaret Kobia at NYS Tumaini Centre in Ol Kalou.
Among the giant consumers of potato in the country are National Youth Service and Prisons. The two institutions combined have an annual demand of about 9,000 metric tons of potatoes. They produce only 300 metric tonnes of the crop annually, hence the burden to address the 87,000 metric tonnes shortfall is placed on the Exchequer.
The inadequate production is, however, a national challenge, as the country only produces 2-3 million tonnes annually, yet it has the capacity to produce 6 million tonnes. Lack of certified potato seed largely contributes to this challenge, where only about 1 per cent of certified seed is available to the farmers.
“The objective of this project is to meet this shortfall as well as produce surplus seed for sale to the local community,” Matiang’i said.
He said government institutions have a lot of resources that are not utilised. He said the NYS and Prisons will in future produce their own food without relying on the Exchequer for sustainability.
In Tumaini, he said, the NYS has over 6,00 acres. The Prisons department has 4,000 acres in Uasin Gishu, 450 acres in Kakamega, and 670 acres in Nakuru, among other areas lying idle.
“But we continue crying about hunger and continue to suffer. How can we buy food in NYS with land like this? These are some of the issues that have made the president resolve that we must implement the Big 4 agenda, “he said
Under the potato seed production project, aeroponic technology, a rapid seed multiplication technique for producing potato seed with a yield of up to 10 times higher than the traditional method being used.
The technology involves a process of growing plantlets in an air/mist environment without the use of soil or aggregate media. The roots of the plantlets are developed in a closed and dark container, in a greenhouse. The container is empty of everything except air. Nutrients are provided periodically to the roots through spraying with a nutrients-enhanced water solution. After a six-month cycle, the plantlets produce mini tubers, which can be planted directly to the soil to produce potatoes.
The first aeroponics unit was introduced in Kenya in 2008 by International Potato Centre at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation in Tigoni and later at the Genetics Technologies International Limited in Nairobi.
At Tumaini, four greenhouses were launched under this project. Here, the first breeders’ seeds are being multiplied to generate certified seeds.
Each greenhouse has about 200 stems of tissue culture potato. Each stem will give at least about 50 pieces of breeder’s seed, which will then be planted, and each tuber will give about 100 seeds. This multiplication will continue until the two agencies generate enough certified seed potatoes for themselves and eventually supply to the market.
Patrick Kariri, the director of Prison Farms, says the potato seed multiplication project initially started in September 2018 and picked in December the same year. He says the Prisons and NYS are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Kephis, Kalro and Kenya Potato Centre in Tigoni “to ensure we get the correct seed and that the project moves in the right direction”.
The project, he says, is the second-largest in Africa after Rwanda. Titled ‘African roots and tubers: Strengthening linkages between small actors and buyers’, the Rwandan project was established to ensure a common potato seed system.
The EU-funded project under the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation aims to improve the livelihoods of small producers in seven selected African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
“Our expectation is that while fully operational, the project will be the largest in Africa,” Kariri says.
He says the project, once implemented successfully, will have a great impact on potato production in Kenya. The production will go up to between 70-80 bags of potatoes per acre, as opposed to the current output of about 30 bags per acre. This will ensure the national needs are met and surplus left for export. It will also bring down the cost of potato products.
Kariri says the two agencies will continue multiplying the potato seed cumulatively, until it is finally provided to the farmers at an affordable price. Breeder’s seed is not affordable to farmers, as the least one piece of tuber can cost is Sh25.
Kariri says the seed produced under the project will be the best for farmers, as it can go for five to seven generations.
HOW COUNTY WILL BENEFIT
Nyandarua will reap big benefits, given it is the leading producer of potatoes in Kenya, with 35 per cent, which generates an estimated Sh9 billion annually. Nyandarua Governor Francis Kimemia says the county produces 550,000 metric tonnes of potatoes in about 37,000 hectares.
The local farmers will benefit from the certified seed at minimum cost. They will not incur much in terms of transport, as the production unit is in the county.
“The launch of this project is a historic moment for Nyandarua. Healthy potato seeds for both local and export markets will be produced here,” he says.
He says the Nyandarua leadership is not only happy about the project, but also because the national government will support the county in building a potato processing plant. The county government has factored Sh400million in the current budget for the project.
Kimemia says the plant will process potatoes for local and export markets and also make potato products, including starch and medicine.
Matiang’i said the national government will cooperate with the Nyandarua government to ensure the factory is built.
“Please look for land to build the potato processing plant and we shall work together. Our correctional services together with NYS are now joining you to put up the potato processing plant here,” he said.
On April 10, Correctional Services PS Zeinab Hussein led an inspection of 30acres, where the factory will be built in Ol Kalou.
The delegation also visited NYS Tumaini barracks to inspect the progress of the potato seed generation project, and later the KDF Kenyatta Barracks at Gilgil for benchmarking on potato processing plant.
Hussein said the project is a follow-up to the Potato Seed Multiplication Centre launched at NYS Tumaini barracks by Matiang’i on February 15. The aim is to mitigate post-harvest losses, which is a major challenge in potato production and marketing.
“As we launched the centre, we realised we must then address the entire potato value chain,” she said.
Nyandarua Deputy Governor Cecilia Mbuthia said the designs are at the advanced stage, and the county is in discussion with Public Works engineers and architects, adding that the ground breaking will take place by the end of this month.
Nyandarua is also establishing a tissue culture laboratory at the Agricultural Training College in Ol Joro Orok to produce and propagate potato seed production. Agriculture executive James Karitu says the project will cost Sh160 million.
Cold storage is also being built at Ol Kalou, where farmers will store their produce awaiting better prices.