In terms of production and utilisation, Irish potatoes are only second to maize. Kenyan farmers produce 2 to 3 million tonnes of potatoes worth Sh50 billion each year.
Rachael Githinji is a potato farmer from Gathiuru, Nyeri. She is part of a farming community growing Irish potatoes in the forest slopes of Mt Kenya.
“In total, we have about 75 acres on which we grow our potatoes,” she says.
Known as Mt Kenya Gathiuru Community Forest Association, the farmer’s group, in which Githinji is the manager, produces about 5, 000 50Kg-bags of potatoes every season.
“We have two growing seasons in a year,” she says. “With abundance of rain and highly fertile soils, we are always guaranteed of a good harvest.”
For the group, she says, pests and diseases are not the biggest challenge. “We do not have major attacks as such.”
What therefore is the greatest challenge they are facing?
“Finding the right market,” she says. “We produce good quality crop and we just want buyers who will pay top dollar for it.”
Like with farmers all over the country, Githinji and her colleagues (over 500 of them), are not immune to the scourge that is middlemen.
“When we are lucky, we sell a bag at Sh5,000. But this is usually when there is little to no competition.
“The average though is Sh2,500 for the white variety and Sh1, 800 for the red variety.
“And when the market is flooded the price can drop. This is because potatoes are highly perishable. Once mature, you can’t leave it in the field for long. After harvesting you can’t store it for long.
“If you don’t have cold storage – which none of us has – then you have to dispose of the harvest before it loses value and you lose everything,” Githinji says.
This is a challenge that county governments in potato growing areas have taken note of.
Dr James Karitu, the County Executive Member in charge of Ministry of Agriculture in Nyandarua County (the leading county in production of potatoes) says construction is currently underway for a cold storage facility that will be able to accommodate at least 1, 000 metric tonnes of potatoes.
“A lot of the work we have done with our potato farmers is in capacity building. However, we do recognise the challenges these farmers are experiencing with storage and unstable prices.
“By solving storage problems, we will be solving pricing indirectly: so that farmers can store their produce and sell when there is demand. This way, they won’t fall prey to brokers whose main interest is to exploit the farmers.
“The Ol Kalou cold-storage facility is just the start. The plan is to have cold storage facilities in every corner of Nyandarua,” Dr Karitu says.
Nyandarua County is also setting up a processing plant for value addition.
According to the CEC, processing will increase the value of potatoes and hence fetch farmers higher revenues.
Speaking of higher revenues, one of the activities that Githinji’s team has managed to do so well is value addition.
She says: “There is real value in value addition. We have put forth a proposal to start operating a 24-hour all year round potato processing business.
“The average price we sell the 50kg bag of the white potato variety is Sh2,500. When we process the same bag into crisps or chevda, the value rises to Sh20,000.
“Sometimes we get orders for chopped (but not fried) and potato chips. When we do this the 50Kg bag fetches about Sh15,000.
“Processing the produce is therefore where the money is for the farmer. Right now we only do value addition for clients who pre-order for occasions.”
The Gathiuru Potato Farmers Group are beneficiaries of a grant that enabled them set up a processing plant with washing troughs, pillers, choppers, clippers, disc millers, electric mixers, dryers, freezers and working tables.
The facility, located in Nanyuki, has earned the farmers millions over the years since 2007, Githinji says.
The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) owns 50 per cent of the seed varieties currently farmed in Kenya.
KALRO’s Tigoni station purposefully handles all matters Irish potatoes.
The centre’s director, Dr Moses Nyongesa, tells Smart Harvest & Technology that the bulk of potato exports in Kenya are in form of processed products.
“On average we export 2.5 tonnes annually of our potatoes but most of it is in form of products such as chevda, crisps and chips,” Dr Nyongesa says.
The numbers notwithstanding, he says, Kenya remains a net importer of potatoes. Production therefore needs to be ramped up if the country wanted to be a formidable exporter.
The biggest obstacle blocking Kenyan farmers from scaling up production, Dr Nyongesa says, is lack of good quality seedlings.
“The only place a farmer can get good quality potato seedlings is from a certified potato seed company.
“In Kenya, there are only 3 major players in the seedling market. There are 14 others in the small to medium category.
“In total the companies are fewer than 20. Yet, they are serving a population of approximately 800, 000 potato farmers in Kenya,” Dr Nyongesa says.
Farmers, he says, have resorted to replanting part of their harvest from the previous season.
“The challenge with replanting is that it encourages pest and disease build-up which eventually affects yield at harvest time. If farmers could access certified seeds every planting season production would increase tremendously,” Dr Nyongesa says.
In Nyandarua, Dr Karitu says: “Through capacity building – with other stakeholders and farmers – we have managed to increase production from 8-10 tonnes an acre to about 17 tonnes.”
Nyandarua farmers, he says, are benefitting from an undertaking by the County government, known as Potato seed multiplication programme.
Fifty six varieties of potatoes are grown in Kenya. The most prominent with Kenyan farmers is the Shangi variety.
Dr Karitu says it is time that farmers started farming other varieties which would prove better than Shangi in quality and shelf life.
“The Shangi variety is known to be highly perishable. This often forces farmers to sell at low prices fearful of greater losses,” he says. “We are however advising farmers to explore other varieties which may prove to have longer shelf lives.”
Long or short shelf life, the high of growing potatoes, is in earning a decent profit, Githinji reiterates.
“As things are right now it is brokers, traders and middlemen who are the biggest beneficiaries of potato farming.”
Dr Nyongesa agrees with her, saying: “The market needs to be structured. This should have been done through policies. The problem is that those policies are not being implemented.”