How nutritious sweet potatoes and potatoes are shaping Kenya’s food security


A rich source of vitamin A. [Archive, Standard]

Food security and nutrition are part of Kenya’s ‘Big Four’ Agenda, alongside enhanced manufacturing, universal healthcare, and affordable housing, aimed at accelerating economic growth.  As availability is an essential component of food security, innovations and technologies to boost food production are key.

The nutritious orange-fleshed sweet potato
Sweetpotato is an important food crop and plays a critical role in Kenyan food systems. A proven source of vitamin A, the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) matures within 3-4 months and can be intercropped with foods like maize.  Also, sweet potatoes are resilient under the effects of climate change, making them vital for food availability, especially when other crops fail. 

The roots are good sources of fibre, carbohydrates, and micronutrients. The leaves and shoots, which are also edible, are good sources of vitamins A, B and C. Regular consumption of OFSP is recommended especially for women and young children at risk for vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which can result in child blindness, stunting and even death, in severe cases.

Many farmers in Kenya, are growing and consuming improved, fast-maturing and more resilient varieties of sweet potato released by the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) working closely with the International Potato Center (CIP). Over the last five years, at least 300,000 households have received OFSP planting material. With support from the United Nations World Food Program, the benefits of OFSP are now being extended to households in semi-arid areas of Isiolo and Samburu, opening new livelihood opportunities.

OFSP is much sought after for processing and commercialization: the puree can be used as an ingredient for buns, bread, cookies, and other baked products. Two slices of this bread provide about 10% of the daily vitamin A intake for an adult. As the use of OFSP puree replaces about 45 per cent of the wheat flour in bread, there is an overall reduction in production costs—less wheat and sugar—resulting in healthier products. Supermarkets have recorded increased sales of sweet potato bread and buns.

The National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) estimates the annual potato harvest in 2019 at Sh40 billion. [Archive, Standard]

Potato: a powerhouse of food productivity and incomes

The potato plays an important role in Kenya’s food security plan. It’s nutritious, delivering iron, potassium, and vitamin C to millions.

Approximately 800,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, and another two million people— transporters, distributors, processors, vendors, retailers, and exporters—derive their livelihoods from the potato value chain. The National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) estimates the annual potato harvest in 2019 atSh40 billion. Yet farm income growth from potato in Kenya lags with low yields: only eight to15 tons per hectare, about half its potential.

The low yields are due primarily to poor quality seed tubers saved from earlier harvests or purchased from unregulated local markets. Expanding farmer access to quality seed of improved potato varieties, combined with good agricultural practices, is essential to boost yields and earnings.

Working closely with public institutions and private sector, CIP has introduced several seed technologies and approaches, including storage structures, and high yielding, pest and disease resistance, and climate-resilient varieties. Rapid multiplication technologies, such as aeroponics, hydroponics and rooted apical cuttings are ramping up production of high-quality seed. These technologies have been adopted by both public and private seed merchants. However, the use of certified quality seed is still low, accounting for only 5% of sales in 2018 – far below ideal. 

Working with county governments in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Meru, Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Nyandarua, Nakuru, Bungoma, Kiambu, and Taita Taveta, potato production is improving.  And farmer engagement in marketing potatoes is being strengthened through farmer associations. The VIAZI SOKO platform, a one-stop information platform for potato farmers, is providing information on certified seed, produce outlets, and prevailing market prices of ware potato.

Kenya is a priority country for CIP hosting its regional hub. Thanks to investments by UKAID, USAID, German Technical Cooperation (GIZ), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation among others, we will continue to exploit the power of potato and sweet potato in creating sustainable and diversified food systems.  Partnerships with KALRO, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS), county governments, the private sector and other actors are key to the success of this work.