Farmers’ lobby sets out to boost East African Community potato yields

NAIROBI: Lack of improved seeds, use of obsolete technology, lack of access to credit, effects of climate change and cartel-like behaviour are some of the factors that have been blamed for the East African Community’s (EAC) low production of potatoes.

Last week during the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme’s (CAADP) regional Africa forum in Rwanda, which focused on the potato value chain in EAC, sector players called for collaboration with a view to sealing the gaps hindering high regional production.

Value chain players also faulted EAC’s governments for failing to allocate adequate funding for the production of seeds and value addition.

Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF) CEO Stephen Muchiri said the current situation has seen major hotels and traders turn to Morocco, Egypt and South Africa to meet demand for the crop.

He added that there is high potential for a potato value chain in East Africa, but the crop has been neglected, despite Rwanda having one of the highest-quality produce in the world.

In Kenya, the potato sub-sector, which has an annual turnover of more than Sh50 billion, is largely dominated by cartels who dictate price and segment the market. Mr Muchiri added.

The crop is grown mainly by small-scale farmers, although some larger-scale growers specialise in commercial production.

POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION

“In major markets in the country, for example Wakulima in Nairobi, Karatina air market in Nyeri, and Kongowea market in Mombasa, the potato business is controlled by a few traders who bar new entrants,” said Muchiri.

“Potatoes are grown by over 800,000 farmers, cultivating 60,000 acres, but a majority are smallholders and only produce enough for household consumption.”

The potato is the second-most important food crop in the country, after maize.

However, it is increasingly being regarded as junk food as a result of the growing consumption of French fries and crisps. This has significantly affected its role in fulfilling standard dietary needs. Therefore, its potential contribution to food and nutritional security has been undermined, Muchiri said.

Still, according to the 2015 Economic Survey, the production of Irish potatoes in Kenya increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 2012 to 2.1 million tonnes in 2013 and 2.3 million tonnes in 2014.

However, the crop’s production is yet to reach its highest levels realised five years ago of 2.7 million tonnes.

“If well managed, potatoes can grow faster and produce higher yields than maize and rice. They are also suitable for small-scale cultivation and promote responsible land use,” said Muchiri.

With support from the European Commission, several EAFF member organisations are now implementing a series of activities aimed at strengthening farmers’ groups in their engagements in the potato value chain at national and regional levels.

One of the activities involves educating farmers on the causes of the crop’s low production and poor quality, such as recycling produce every planting season.

The farmers’ lobby also wants governments to manage the politics and cartels around the marketing and sale of the crop.

In an earlier interview, the acting managing director of the Kenya Plant Health Services Inspectorate Services (Kephis), Esther Kimani, said the seven companies registered to produce certified potato seeds are only able to produce 36 varieties, which meets two per cent of demand.

To bridge the gap, in 2012, Kenya signed a bilateral agreement with the Netherlands to import seed potato, which has since led to the release of 17 varieties.

EAFF is also encouraging the use of biometric departments to develop improved potato varieties for better yields.

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East African Community’s (EAC)Eastern Africa Farmers FederationEAFFKenya Plant Health Services Inspectorate ServicesKephis