It is not every day you get to visit a hi-tech potato seed multiplication farm in Kenya and so when Smart Harvest team landed the chance, they peeled it off.
We are at the 1,300-acres Agrico East Africa in Ol Rongai, a 30km drive from Nakuru town where multiplication of potato seeds happens.
“Quality production equals quality seeds. We decided to multiply seeds after realising farmers recycle harvested produce that is not certified, a practice that leads to poor yields and crop losses,” says Willem Dolleman, Agrico East Africa seed potato production manager.
Here, everything is done with precision, from seed selection to planting and harvesting to guarantee quality potato yield.
Dolleman explains that potato recycled have clones of the same generation compared to seed potato that possess different characters for instance, rate of yields are higher because of hybridisation.
To guarantee quality, seeds multiplied here are imported from the Netherlands, one of the top 10 potato producers in the world.
To meet demand from farmers, the farm imports at least 200 to 300 tonnes of potato for multiplication annually of which 4 tonnes are planted per acre for multiplication.
The firm went full throttle with commercialisation of potato in 2016 following a public-private partnership between Kenya and the Netherlands after certification by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis).
But why mechanisation?
According to Dolleman, mechanisation reduces human and animal traffic by setting the farm as a quarantine seed multiplication area and this way, there are no incidences of getting germs that contaminate seeds.
Additionally, mechanisation makes work easier for large scale multiplication within stipulated timelines.
For instance, a single machine cultivates, prepare ridges and incorporates fertilizer in the soil, he points out.
“When mechanisation is done on the seed multiplication, it makes work easier and reduces costs because one tractor is used for several jobs,” explains the manager.
Rate of damage caused during production is also reduced since movement of harvested seeds is done by tractors.
The three potato varieties multiplied here are Destiny, Markies and Manitou. Apart from the three varieties, the government has approved 13 varieties for importation from Netherlands.
Production capacity of the varieties ranges between 12 to 16 tonnes per acre.
Destiny, Dolleman explains is suitable for crisps and has high dry matter content and shallow eyes. It also has high resistance of Y virus and golden nematode. On the other hand, Markies is late maturing (matures after 100 days) with dry matter content and is good for French fries and crisps. It is resistant to blight and Y virus.
The beauty of the Manitou, a variety that mature after 90 days, is that it is resistant to early blight.
So which variety is best overall?
“Production rate for all the varieties is high with proper farm practice. This is why we encourage farmers to ensure they plant varieties that are certified to curb losses,” Dolleman advises.
Process of potato production
An agronomist and production manager of Agrico East Africa Mr Athanasious Kaituyu explains that first practice in potato seed production is chiseling followed by disc harrowing.
Fertilisation spreader is later done following advice of soil analysts to know the amount of fertiliser to apply during production.
Hooktine cultivator mounted with a ridge machine incorporates fertiliser and nutrients in the soil and creates ridges behind.
A combined cultivator is later used to cultivate and prepare ridges ready for planting. Spacing of seed variety is done at 22 by 75cm interval and 6 inche depth.
A planter is used to place potato seeds inside the ridges and spray them with nematicide, then it is covered with soil.
Not only is mechanisation cost effective, but it also saves time.
“Work using machines is easier and saves on time. The machine is accurate,” Kaituyu says.
After all that process, germination happens after ten days, then weeding is done by a ranger machine that covers weeds including a section of newly germinated potatoes.
After germination, preventive fungicide against late blight disease is applied (four leaves stage) and in areas with cut worms, pyrethroid chemical spray is applied in the evening.
Later, alternation between preventive and curative chemical application is done according to weather variability. During rains, spraying is done after five days whereas sunny weather detect seven days. Advise from an agronomist is key.
Before harvest, sizing squire is used to measure size of potato seeds, then harvesting is done and later the produce undergoes grading. This entails removal of chuff and damaged tubers.
The harvest stage
Timing when to harvest depends on farmer’s needs, he says.
“Production of potato depends with use, for us, at 12 weeks, it is ready for harvesting but farmers can continue up to their preferred stage.”
Harvested produce is later taken to storage facility that has capacity to hold 500 tonnes of potato.
At the stores, the product is keep under controlled temperature and light system to ensure it stays fresh.
“Temperatures are regulated to only 4 degrees Celsius and when it’s to be taken to famers it is transferred from 4 to 10 to prepare them for sprouting.”
Regulation of temperatures is done to break dormancy of the seed potato.
Regulation depends on the variety, for instance Markies and Manitou take two months while destiny one and a half months.
“We only distribute the seeds to farmers after breaking dormancy, a practice done to boost germination,” says Kaituyu.
The final stage is weighing and packaging.
Inspected by Kephis
To meet international standards, the seed potatoes are inspected by Kephis from planting, growing and storage before distribution to farmers.
“Kephis officers visit the farm and inspects the crop and observe practices applied before approval,” he explains.
For clean seeds free from pests and diseases, any visitor seeking entry at the farm must disinfect their feet before entry to the farm and vehicle drive through a disinfectant trough.
Wheat is rotated with potato. The agronomist explains that crop rotation helps curb pests and diseases, and maintain good soil structure because potatoes are tubers while wheat is root system.
The practice also improves soil structure and additional organic matter.
The farm sells its seed potato mainly in Meru and Kirinyaga, which are leading potato producers.