A farmer dries sweet potato for value addition. [Mercy Kahenda]

Tired of earning small money and suffering post harvest losses, a team of sweet potato farmers in dry Samburu county have embraced value addition. The group are growing newly researched on orange fleshed potato variety because it is high yielding and fast maturing.

On the day of the visit, The Smart Harvest finds the industrious farmers divided into Nanok and Serian groups- busy with some irrigating the crop, while others harvesting.

Andrew Mutua, the Nanok chairman says they started to add value to their produce to make more and have a constant supply of the produce throughout the year.

“Sweet potatoes go bad after a few weeks, but with value addition, we can preserve a lot more and sell at better prices,” Mr Mutua says.

Some of the products they make from sweet potatoes include dried chips, flour, noodles, bread, candy, pectin and cakes.

The group learnt value addition after attending a training by Child Fund, an NGO that focuses on nutrition and food security.

“Before, we could harvest the tubers and boil some for immediate consumption. The rest would rot in the stores. After the training on value addition, we can now make produce that does not go bad quickly,” says Mutua.

Why sweet potatoes

Mutua explains that they chose to venture into sweet potato production due to drought and as a way to avoid dependence on livestock keeping, which is unsustainable. Because the rains are rare, they water their crops using irrigation.

Unlike other crops, orange fleshed sweet potatoes are drought resistant, require no chemicals during production, and are not labour-intensive.

The orange fleshed variety is rich in vitamin A, making it great for vulnerable groups like pregnant women and children who have low immunity.

Vitamin A is essential in maintaining healthy vision, ensuring normal functioning of the immune system, and aids in proper growth and development of babies in the womb.

Nune Lelera chairperson of Suguta Marmar group, says the orange fleshed variety is a solution to food insecurity. 

Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) research scientist John Mpalale says the orange fleshed varieties grown in the country include Kenspot-3, 4 and 5 and kabonde.

The varieties are well adapted to harsh climatic conditions in Samburu county.

“The weather in Samburu is harsh to all crops, but with irrigation, the orange fleshed potato variety can thrive, and is able to yield more than five edible roots,” Mpalale says.

The varieties are high yielding, for example, Kenspot-1 produces at least 80 to 90 bags of 110 kilograms per acreage of land, with good framing practises.

The crop is grown from slips (overgrown vines from mature sweet potato tubers).

Weed control

For easier germination, the sips are placed in a shade that contains moisture, placed in a bright, sunny window to allow roots to form before being planted in a well tilled land.

Farmers are advised to plant slips in heaps of about 45 degrees, as it promotes development of roots with loose, friable soil to expand size and shape of tubers in addition to permitting adequate drainage.

The heaps makes harvesting of tubers easy.

During planting, only slips with developed roots are placed in an individual hall measuring 15 centimetres deep, spaced at 30 to 45 centimetres apart while allowing 3 feet between rows.

Farmers are encouraged to plant the crop in ridges for easier root formation, weeding, harvesting and pest control.

“Proper spacing of the plant at one feet facing one direction is important because the vines spread over large area after germination,” says the scientist.

Weeding is practiced after two to three weeks of germination by pulling the weed using hand to avoid tempering with the roots.

Later on, mulching can be conducted in between the rows to prevent growth of weeds, maintain soil capillarity and moisture.

During harvesting, tubers are harvested using a garden fork by carefully digging to avoid causing bruises that cause produce to lose market value.

Because of harsh condition in Samburu, farmers are trained on seed multiplication technology, which helps preserve available material during harsh weather.

In Samburu, Kalro is working in partnership with Child Fund to multiply seeds, which are distributed to farmers for production.