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Potato project to unlock potential of crop in Western

By Jackline Inyanji
Hassan Were (in red) plant pathologist at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology explain to Lesley Torrance from St. Andrews at United Kingdom University the Asante gynotype of Irish potatoes at Sangalo institute of science and technology during quikgro potato project evaluation of potato population earliness, heart and virus tolerance. 60 new gynotypes of potatoes were established and the county government of Bungoma has given out the seeds to 22 words to grow. [Duncan Ocholla, Standard]

The introduction of early maturing, disease and heat resistant Irish potato variety at Sang’alo Institute of Science and Technology could unlock the potential of potato farming in Western, a region hitherto dominated by sugarcane and maize farming.

Prof Hassan Were, a plant pathologist at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, said the new Irish potato variety being tried in low land areas is unique and will strengthen potato production systems of small-holder farmers because of its early maturity.

“This is the second trial since we started the project in 2008 after pondering why Kenya’s production of potatoes was low. We did a survey and found out there were so many diseases and pest affecting the yield. We tried to find a variety that can mature early and which is disease and heat resistant. We want to increase the area under potato production considering this region is warm and normally potatoes are grown in highlands,” Were said.

Prof Lesley Torrance of St Andrews University said they selected a variety that contains traits such as high resistance to diseases such as late blight and viruses, drought and heat tolerance and high maturity rates.

“We selected 60 genotypes for trial to see how they performed. Some have done excellent while others have been affected by pests.

Our vision is to have heat tolerant potato, 70 days rotation potatoes highly resistant to diseases. This will help farmers cut costs in controlling the disease. Most sub-Saharan African counties that grow potatoes are affected by pests and diseases because there is no much rotation. We want to find out how we can improve seed potato production besides controlling pest,” Torrance said.

She said that plant viruses cause major disease epidemics in important food crops and are a major threat to food security in many countries.

“The predicted climate warming caused by environmental changes is expected to increase the abundance and geographic range of many insects that spread viruses which cause diseases. Potato is the third largest food crop in the world but pests and diseases cause major economic losses through decreased tuber yield and quality, and rejection of exports,” she said.

Torrance said the survey being carried out in Malawi, Scotland and Kenya focuses on potato viruses, investigating mechanisms of host susceptibility and resistance.

Bungoma County Director of Agriculture Onesmus Makhanu said to safeguard food security, farmers need to be trained on cutting post-harvest loses.

He said 22 wards in Bungoma County, majorly in highland areas are growing Irish potatoes and the introduction of the new variety will help improve productivity.

“The variety being tested on can be grown in lower areas considering Bungoma County is 42 per cent food insecure. We need to multiply on farms and use this opportunity to improve food security,” he said.

The Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is the second most important food crop in Kenya, after maize.

The tuber can be used in making stew, crisps, mukimo and fried chips.

According to Techno serve, 2018, it is estimated that the crop is grown by 600,000 to 800,000 farmers with a total production of 1 to 1.4 million tonnes worth Sh30 to Sh40 billion per year.

The productivity of potato tubers ranges from between 8 and 10 tonnes per hectare, depending on agricultural practices.

Nation Potato Council of Kenya CEO, Wachira Kaguongo said that good agricultural practices like the growing of certified seed potato will double productivity.

To produce a good potato crop, one-acre farm requires an investment of between Sh60, 000 to Sh80, 000 per season of three to four months depending on the maturity time of the variety grown.

Profitability of potato production can go for up to Sh180,000 per acre over a four-month period. With the potential of growing potatoes two to three times a year in Kenya, it is possible for farmers to earn an average Sh90, 000 per season net profit or Sh180, 000 per year from two seasons.  

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