Changing fortunes for Narok potato farmers

In just 4 months, a group of 28 farmers have seen their fortunes change drastically for the better following a partnership with a money-lending firm. The farmers have been part of a pilot phase for an improved potato farming project that has been spearheaded by Mobile Financial Solutions (MFS).

“There was need to transform the lives of farmers by not giving them money but giving them farm inputs” Says Shadrack Kibet, an agronomist from MFS. The lender bought farm inputs including certified potato seeds, fertilizers and chemicals. The farmers just farm.

Nancy Chelang’at Ng’eny is one of those farmers. She has leased 2 acres at kshs 5,000 per year for 2 years. She is part of a group of 28 farmers who among them have a combined 59 acres under potatoes. The variety that they have planted is Dutch which is very good for crisps.

“We were taught on potato farming, fertilizers and everything related to potatoes” says Nancy. “Then two weeks later they came back and saw the farms and took soil samples” she continues. Interested farmers were registered according to the suitability of their farms to grow potatoes.

The registration process included signing contracts through which MFS was to provide inputs and then buy the produce. The farmer was to provide labour. The group is largely located in Olmenkenyo in Narok County.

The county is mostly known for wheat which is grown by medium and large scale farmers. The small scale farmers have been planting maize and beans. Nancy used to plant maize which would produce 10 bags of maize per acre.

She is now a potato convert. She however used to plant the locally sourced potato seeds which would give her 20 bags per acre. This has drastically been changed through the MFS project which brought in certified Dutch seeds. She was harvesting when Hortfresh visited the farm and they had harvested 100 bags.

She says she will never go back to maize because it is labour intensive, the costs are high and it takes 9 months to mature. Potatoes only take 4 months, fetch a better price and are easier to manage.

The project started in April under the guidance of Raphael Gichaga. He is an agricultural consultant for Cropnuts. He is the one who took soil samples and also interpreted the results to the farmers once the tests came back

He visits the farmers’ group every Wednesday to check on progress and implementation of the previous weeks resolutions. He also hears any challenges that have cropped up in the last seven days. The visits and meetings are done on a different farm each week so that all farmers are visited.

He has over 20 years experience in agriculture and was once the District Agricultural Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture. He oversaw two rounds of soil testing. The first test was for soil nutrition and the second test was for soil diseases. After the first test, they did the appropriate soil correction.

The second test revealed the presence of bacterial wilt in the soil. This test was necessitated after one of the visits revealed symptoms in 1-2 acres of a 5 acre farm belonging to one of the group members.

This is one of the advantages of being in the group. “We were not managing the farm as we are doing now that the agronomist is with us” Nancy says. Previously, they used to just go to the local agrovet and tell the attendant their problems and sometimes the attendant has no training in agriculture.

One of their biggest challenge was the rains. The rains delayed during planting and some plants stayed for a month in the soil before sprouting. When the rains came, they were a bit too much and after a short period, they then disappeared. “If the rains were adequate, we would have yields that are 1.5 times more than now” says Raphael.

The project was targeting 145 bags per acre and one of the farmers has already harvested 120 bags. This is still a great improvement since his previous harvest from uncertified seeds produced only 30 bags. The second phase of the project is slated for October 2019 where they want to increase the acreage to 200 acres.

MFS is doing the marketing for the potato produce and had already signed a contract with a crisp processing company to buy the potatoes. This is part of the lender’s philosophy of ‘from soil to retail’. They are however facing a challenge of uptake of the expected total produce of 500 tonnes of potatoes by the crisp making company. The crisp company has only absorbed 70 tonnes so far.

This has made the project manager Kibet look into establishing a storage facility within the area so that when the potatoes are ready they can be harvested and stored awaiting pick up by the processor. He is also looking into introducing a spray drone to do the spraying so that the process is smoother and faster. The drone can carry 10 litres of spray solution. It is estimated to cost 1 million shillings.

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