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How Kenya can fix the potato value chain

A potato trader at Eldoret Market in Uasin Gishu county on August 2, 2021. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

There was a public outcry last week against the American fast-food franchise Kentucky Fries and Chicken (KFC).

The furore that was channelled through social media, with the hashtag ‘BoycottKFC’ trending on Twitter, was inflamed by a KFC tweet on Monday that it had run out of potato chips.

‘Insensitive’ is the word that the Governor of Nyandarua County Francis Kimemia used to describe the statement by KFC. This is because thousands of farmers continue to struggle with an oversupply of potatoes.

Not that the government has been sensitive to the plight of the potato farmer, with potato productivity negatively impacted by low availability of certified seed, persistent use of older varieties, poor soil fertility, high pest and disease incidence, and low knowledge levels of good agricultural practices, according to a World Bank report that was published in January last year.

The KFC crisis offers Kenya an opportunity to reflect, not only on what has bedeviled this strategic food, but also how to fix its supply chain that makes it difficult for the country to produce the in-demand potato used by KFC and many other global fast-food giants to prepare fries.

Investigate market preference

As demonstrated by South Africa and Egypt-where KFC imports its processed, pre-blanched, blast-frozen potato French fries due to existence of total traceability back to source- improving the quality assurance in the country’s supply chain is not going to be easy.

Dr Immaculate Mainthe, the Agriculture executive, in the County Government of Nakuru, reckons that the conversation around revitalising potato supply chain to match that of Egypt should start with seed variety and market demand.

The first question, she reckons, is to investigate the market preference for the outlets such as KFC, for example, which seems to demand something specific.

“What is the farmer in Egypt doing that we cannot do in Kenya? Is the whole thing more about a global food chain or are there other underlying factors?” wondered Mainthe.

“Ultimately, I think it comes down to varieties that our people can plant and afford and whether they will be able to aggregate for a particular market,” she added.

The most popular potato variety grown in Kenya is Shangi which is used to prepare Mukimo, a dish prepared by communities around Mount Kenya mostly by mashing potatoes, green vegetables, beans and maize.  

Longer shelf life

There are other seed varieties that are not only less prone to disease and have higher yields, they also have a longer shelf life.

It is some of these potatoes that are used for making processed foods such as crisp that KFC is importing from Egypt, according to the World Bank report.

Yet these potatoes could be grown locally.

“Only five per cent of varieties from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research  Organisation (Kalro) are suitable for processing, yet Kalro does not have the capacity to multiply enough seed of these top varieties, even when operating at full capacity,” said the World Bank.

“Indeed, Kenyan processors supplying frozen chips to high-end hospitality chains are importing ware potato from these two countries – locking out local farmers from this high-value industry.”

To import processed, pre-blanched, blast-frozen potato French fries, KFC relies on Egypt’s robust traceability framework, which is largely unavailable in Kenya.

Part of the reason why there is no traceability of food is that there is no legal framework and also because consumers are just not demanding, says Mainthe.

“It is true that when I buy potatoes from the supermarkets I don’t know who brought them, where they came from. It is also true that when I buy my carrot I don’t know who grew them and how they grew them,” she explains.

“That has to do with the structure of our food market. That I when I grow my products I can sell to anybody, anywhere.”

To address this problem, the government came up with the Crop (Irish Potato) regulations that requires all farmers to be registered. But farmers have been opposed to these regulations, with some arguing that it is a scheme to disenfranchise them.

The County Government of Nyandarua has since suspended the registration of small-scale farmers, but will require commercial farmers to have permits.

Traceability starts with mind shift

Under these regulations, which also require farmers to start packaging potatoes in 50-kilogramme bags as opposed to 90-kilogramme, farmers are expected to put food together in a collection centre so that when it is bought buyers known where it has come from.

“Traceability starts with a mind shift with the consumer demanding to know where the food is coming from, t he trader wanting to work in an open environment and even the transporters being roped in,” says Mainthe, noting that these changes will take a long time to materialise.

Increased potatoes production is part of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to ensure food security under the Big Four Plan.

The plan is for the country to increase production from the current 1.9 million bags to about 2.5 million bags by end of this year.

To this end, both levels of government have endeavoured to supply certified potato seeds to farmers, build the capacity, and improve their agricultural practices.

Elephant in the room

However, the elephant in the room has been finding the market, especially given the fact that potato is susceptible to the cycles of boom and bust.

One of the solution to this problem is put as many potatoes under irrigation so that all farmers do not grow at the same time as is currently the case with rain-fed potato production.

Invest in cold storage facilities

But even more critical is the need for counties to invest in cold storage facilities so that farmers can store their excess produce rather than sell them at throw-away prices.

Both Nakuru and Nyandarua counties-two major growers of potato-say they are at advanced stage in developing cold storage facilities.

Nakuru county has put aside Sh10 million to develop cold storage, says Mainthe.

In a commentary on The Standard on Thursday, Kimemia noted that a Sh100 million cold storage facility with a capacity of 1,000 tonnes in Ol’Kalou is almost complete.

“With the support of President Uhuru Kenyatta, we are confident this will prevent post-harvest losses because farmers’ produce will be store in a conducive environment as they source for markets,” said Kimemia.

Post-harvest losses

The Nyandarua CEC for Agriculture James Karitu added that they have also trained farmers to store potatoes without refrigeration, and organised them in co-operative societies.

In absolute terms, the highest food loss was made in potatoes, with the country losing 186 million kilogrammes, about 2.1 million bags, in 2020, official data shows.

If the country had not lost these potatoes, each person affected by drought would have easily had 27.7 kilogrammes, enough to last them close to a year, with data from KNBS estimating per capita consumption of the starch last year at 32 kilograms.

Mercy Kimani, the founder of Chaqula Ltd in Nyandarua, said while the sector is experiencing a lot of improvements, their efforts have in most cases been undone by the boom and bust cycles.

Use contract farming

Demand, she said, is still unbalanced due to the cycles. Landing price per kilogramme in Nairobi can go as high as Sh50 when demand is good, but dramatically falls to Sh25 when it is low.

Karitu agreed that the rain-feed agriculture that is prone to the cycles has disillusioned farmers.

Karitu noted that the fast-food chains like KFC could use contract farming to source for what they want locally.

SimpliFine, a US holding company, has since commissioned a frozen French fries plant in Naivasha and will be ready to supply from February to restaurants across East Africa, according Steven Carlyon, President SimpliFine.

Otherwise, the government has little choice of hitting potatoes imported from Egypt with higher tariff as the latter is part of the 21-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), a regional economic community, with Kenya.  

Indeed, Kenya’s dependency on imported potatoes, a food security crop, was minimal, has for long been minimal, nearly zero in most years, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

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