Big 4 Agenda: is potato an answer to food insecurity in Kenya?

Irish Potato is the second most important food crop in Kenya after maize. About 2-3 million tonnes of potatoes worth Ksh.50 billion is produced each year. Potato farming employs 2.5 million Kenyans characterized by a few large scale farmers and many small scale farmers scattered in sixteen counties. The industry indirectly employs about 3.3 million people as producers, market agents, transporters, processors, vendors, retailers and exporters.

The main challenge of potato production in the country lies in availability of affordable, quantity, quality, certified seeds. “Only 5% of farmers in the country use the formal seed outlets to get their seeds. The implications of this is reduced farm yield. Where as potential yield of 40 tonnes per hectare can be achieved, farmers in Kenya only produce an average of 10 tonnes per hectare. Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) is addressing this through innovative seed production and supply solutions of high yielding varieties”. Said Dr. Moses Nyongesa, Director, Potato Research Centre-KALRO Tigoni who affirmed that the production of high quality seed remains a key challenge in the development of the potato industry.

Potato research in Kenya was started at the National Agricultural Laboratories, Kabete nearly 100 years ago. Currently, KALRO- Tigoni provides research support for the potato value chain. It is one of the centers under the Horticulture Research Institute of KARLO, whose mission is to conduct research on various aspects relating to the potato value chain. The Centre’s research programs aim at improving food and nutrition security and the profitability of potato production, marketing and consumption. The center through the breeding program responds to the demands of farmers, markets and consumers by developing and releasing seed varieties with high tuber yields, late blight resistance, bacterial wilt resistance and virus resistance.

“One of our functions is to ensure that we continually produce superior potato varieties that replace existing varieties”. Says John Onditi, a researcher at the seed breeding program. “Superior means the new varieties can produce better yields, they have better quality, they have better storability, they have good dormancy, they mature early and they give better returns for all stakeholders”. He continues to say.

The varieties that KALRO Tigoni has produced include: Shangi, Unica, Kenya Mpya, Sherekea, Tigoni, Asante, Dutch Robijn, Kenya Sifa,, Kenya Mavuno, Kenya Karibu, Roslyn Tana, Desiree, Kerr’s Pink, Kenya Baraka, Purple Gold and Annet among others.

Onditi is particularly excited about the Shangi variety which he says cuts across in terms of superior characteristics. “I love the work we did with Shangi and in future we are looking to introduce a variety that is as good as Shangi but with more beautiful and better characteristics.” He concludes. The center is also working to develop varieties that are heat and drought tolerant in a bid to introduce them into hotter regions of the country.

Varieties developed by KARLO Tigoni Breeding Program are cleaned to remove seed tuber borne diseases and further multiplied in the field to producer breeder’s seed. In order to rapidly get a large quantity of clean starter material for field multiplication, KALRO Tigoni Centre uses certain techniques including aeroponics.

“Aeroponics involves raising potato plants in special chambers which allow the roots to be suspended in mid-air. The hanging roots are covered using black polythene so that no light reaches the roots. Nutrients are pumped into the air surrounding the roots” Says Patrick Pwaipwai, an officer in the KALRO Seed Potato program. The advantage of aeroponics is that it ensures production of more mini tubers that are disease free and have a longer plant cycle. The mini tubers are then planted in the field at various centers including Tigoni in Kiambu, Marindas in Nakuru, Njambini in Nyandarua and Marimba in Meru County.

Field Production of seed potatoes is regulated by KEPHIS who provide inspection and certification of the seed before onward distribution to farmers.

KALRO improved varieties come with agronomic, crop protection and post-harvest packages to optimize production and close the yield gap between research level and farm level. “Research without outreach cannot be impactful and KALRO appreciates that research is the key driver to agricultural and economic development in this country” says Judith Oyoo who is in charge of the Outreach and Partnerships Program at KALRO Tigoni. The outreach is done through open field days, workshops, fairs and agricultural shows.

There are numerous marketing challenges affecting the potato value chain in Kenya. Potatoes are traded in unstructured marketing systems where value addition is minimal at producer level despite the huge potential. Dr. Nyongesa says that, “potatoes in Kenya have a high potential for addressing food insecurity, unemployment and low farm incomes due to its high productivity per unit area and its versatility in utilization”. It is also a good pro-poor crop due to its high yield potential compared to other crops, especially in Kenya where fragmentation of farms has led to small scale producers who comprise 80% of agricultural producers.

The potato processing subsector is doing relatively well in urban areas with chips creation being the most obvious investment option. However, the value addition sector faces severe shortages of high quality and appropriate varieties which constrains its expansion and profitability.

The future of Potato production in Kenya is well captured in the potato strategy 2016 – 2020, which focuses on seven strategic objectives aimed at enhancing the sector. These are: strengthening institutional, legal and regulatory frameworks, promoting variety development and seed production, enhancing research, increasing potato production, improving post-harvest handling, value addition and marketing, promoting public -private partnerships and funding for the potato industry. So far the milestones that have been achieved since the launch of the strategy paper include the bulking up of clean seed production, the production of highly resistant varieties like Shangi, the introduction of new varieties like Unica, Wanjiku and Chyulu and an increase in the acreage under potatoes to 150,000 hectares. Unica for example is becoming very popular because it has high yields, bulks fast and is tolerant to blight. The strategy paper will likely need to be revamped to align to the changes that devolved agriculture to the county governments.

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