Sweet potato farmers set eyes on European market

A farmer sorts a sweet potato harvest. International demand for the tuber is expected to soar. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

More farmers are turning to the sweet potato in the wake of growing demand in the European market.

In Migori, the county government is teaming up with the European Union (EU) to build a Sh4 billion sweet potato factory in Getonganya village in Kuria West constituency.

Kuria East MP Marwa Kitayama and Kuria West MP Mathias Robi asked farmers to increase production, assuring them of a ready market abroad.

A recent report by North-Western European Potato Growers Foundation indicated that there was a decline in potato yields in North-West Europe. The foundation consists of five countries - France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 

Increase production

The report indicated that sweet potato production in the Europe market would decrease by 2.5 per cent this season. This has prompted leaders in Kenya to marshal farmers to increase their production.

"This information is an eye-opener for sweet potato farmers in this region. With a factory set to be built here, we can get ready to tap the export market," said Mr Kitayama.

The sweet potato is expected to replace tobacco as the leading cash crop in both Kuria East and West constituencies.

"This is the time for potato farmers to make money from exporting potatoes and potato-based products  by cashing in on high demand in the European market," said Kitayama. 

The new sweet potato factory is expected to boost the region's economy.

"If our farmers increase sweet potato production, they could become a part of the global supply chain," said Mr Robi.

The MPs spoke as the director of supplies and chain management, Hezbon Oyugi, announced that the county had received a grant from the EU to build the sweet potato plant.

The grant, Mr Oyugi said, would be channelled through the Ministry of Devolution and Arid and Semi-Arid Lands under EU ideas programme.

"The EU programme is meant to enhance productivity, market access and profitability of the sweet potato value chain," said Mr Oyugi.

The county has invited bids for the construction of the factory and office blocks.

In a recent inspection tour of the proposed factory site, Devolution ministry Principal Secretary Nelson Marwa said it would be used increase the farmer's profits through value addition.

The factory is expected make sweet potato crisps, flour and biscuits.

A similar factory in Kericho is facing problems as the county tussles with the owner of the land on which it was set up.

Governor Paul Chepkwony's administration set aside Sh6 million to construct a sweet potato processing and packaging factory at Kiptere.

But the plan ran into rough waters when the administrator of the one-acre piece of land on which the factory sits demanded Sh3 million.

The standoff has lasted for four years.

Original agreement

The administrator, Andrew Chirchir, said that in the original agreement, the then Soin/Sigowet MP, Justice Kemei, was to buy 0.2 acres of the land for public use at Sh300,000 through the Constituency Development Fund. 

He said Governor Chepkwony's administration later adjusted the size of the land required to one acre and went ahead to construct the factory before formally concluding the purchase.

“The county has not paid a cent for the piece of land despite completing the factory four years ago,” said Mr Chirchir. 

He said he was ready to allow the factory to start operating as soon as the county paid him the Sh3 million.

But the governor has accused Chirchir of hiking the price of land.

“If Mr Chirchir agrees, we can pay him an amount based on the local rates,” Chepkwony said.

Farmers have called for an end to the row.

"When the construction of the factory began, I went back to my farm to plant more sweet potatoes. To date I haven’t sold a single bag,” said Lilly Langat.

Lenah Ruto said she was contemplating abandoning the crop.

“A portion of sweet potatoes in my farm is rotting away,” she said.