Potato is a key crop in Kenya’s economy, contributing almost USD 30 millions annually. The sector employs approximately 3.3 million people, of which around 800,000 are smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are in the rural setup and involved directly in production. However, potato production has been consistently reducing over the last decade.
Potato production in Kenya, and other African countries, is hindered by low yields per hectare, which is about half of what smallholder farmers could achieve with better inputs and practices. Kenya is the fourth highest potato producing country in Africa after Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa but with the lowest yield per acre amongst these countries.
Limited access to clean planting material is the major barrier to increasing productivity. Most potato farmers in Africa plant poor quality seeds they save from the previous harvest or purchase from unregulated local markets. Often infected with diseases, this potato seed performs poorly. Thus, expanding farmer access to quality seed of improved potato varieties is essential to boosting yields and earnings.
Peter Mbugua of Ngenda ward Kiambu County is a contented man attempting to make a difference. He ventured into horticultural farming to increase his yields, a goal at the heart of every farmer. Speaking to him you can feel the wisdom he offers having lived for over 7 decades. Ngenda on the Map of Kenya is a blessed ward having produced two presidents to have governed the country. His bid is to let go the costly chemical fertilizers by embracing organic methods, but the need to protect soil and the environment continue to emerge even as the farmer seek to improve on food production to meet rising demand and fill the shortages.
In 1988, after he was laid off from employment; he embarked on an ambitious journey of searching for ways of putting food on the table for his family. Years down the line, Agrico East Africa a well known company that promotes the use of potatoes in Kenya was having a field day in Kiambu County to sensitize more farmers on potato farming and this is where his potato farming journey began.
“Before embarking on potatoes, I was and still cultivating pawpaws, aerial yams, pomegranate, and passion fruits among others. But having adopted potato farming has been a big blessing. It has enabled me take care of my family basic needs and pay school fees for my children,” he said
.Scaling up seed production
Seed potato multiplication rates are low compared to other crops approximately 10 seed tubers can be produced per plant, compared to as much as 200 for grains. This low rate leads to shortages of quality seed, forcing farmers to plant sub standard tubers, which leads to sub optimal harvests.
“Critical to seed production is starter material used for onward multiplication in the field. Mini-tubers normally serve as starter material for seed production. Over the past decade, Agrico has promoted technologies to produce mini-tubers, which serve as starter material for growing high quality seed potato, which has contributed to a ten-fold increase in the supply of quality seed in the country,” Mbugua explained.
A growing number of small scale seed ‘multipliers’ and smallholder potato farmers have begun purchasing cuttings to produce seed. One of them is apical cuttings where cuttings are rooted, transplants produced in a screenhouse from tissue culture plantlets.
have the potential to greatly expand the supply of seed potato. This appropriate technology is poised to contribute significantly to improving access to seed, which will be the foundation for higher yields and incomes for Kenyan farmers and farmers everywhere in the future.
Apical cuttings’ provide an alternative to mini-tubers to accelerate seed production. There are two stages in cuttings systems: production of cuttings in a screenhouse, then change of hands to a seed producer or farmer to plant cuttings in the field to produce high numbers of seed tubers. Apical cuttings are produced from in-vitro plantlets by rooting new shoots then transplanting in the field where each cutting produces more tubers.
Mbugua wants to demonstrate to young people that they can make money from potato and also help them to understand and manage lifestyle diseases.
He offers consultancy services on farming practices and linkages with the market. He also wants to run a schools program to teach students about farming as a business.