In Maua town, Meru County, the sweet-scented aroma from the ultra-modern sweet potato processing factory sends our stomachs rumbling. The attractive drawings at the entrance describing the different pastries further augment the growling and as we long to have a bite of the mouthwatering pastries.
The over 1,000-farmers-owned factory is a beehive of activities as depicted by the many staff dressed in white gumboots, matching chef aprons and hats. The staff are either mixing or rolling the dough transforming it into tasty delicacies or prearranging the delicacies on the shelves awaiting distributions.
The factory which is one of its kind in the region utilizes sweet potato flour in making over 11 products that are certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). The products include bread, queen cakes, doughnuts, crisps, sweet potatoes flour among others. The factory, which is run by Meru Friends Sacco was established in the year 2018 after a report by World Health Organisation in 2010 revealed that in the lower parts of Meru, climate change and poverty were enormous threats to the people’s health hindering the acquisition of vital nutrients.
Julius Inyingi, the Chairperson of Meru Friends Sacco explains, “Erratic rainfall occasioned perennial droughts that greatly affected women and children placing them at the risk of malnutrition due to lack of access to healthy foods.”
According to Inyingi, a private extension specialist in Meru County, malnutrition hinderers school attendance a factor that affects the children foundational education. “With malnutrition, children suffer from lack of iron, vital vitamins, and lots of other nutritive requirements that are key in their growth and development rendering them vulnerable to diseases.”
In an attempt to salvage the situation while addressing the problem of lack of vitamin A and striving to become climate-resilient, sweet potato farming was considered.
“Sweet potato farming and value addition was considered as the crop is known to play a crucial role in enhancing food security while improving the nutritional value and promoting livelihoods,” Patrick Mbambu the general manager at the factory explains.
The Orange Fleshed sweet potato variety was specifically considered for its richness in Vitamin A, minerals, iron and potassium. In ensuring the sustainability of the project, while cushioning the small scale farmers against climate change-related effects, farmers were urged to increase the acreage under sweet potatoes.
To guarantee production, farmers were provided for with drought tolerant, disease resistant and high nutrient value vines that were propagated for farmers at Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, an agricultural training centre under the department of the agriculture-county government of Meru.
In urging the farmers to increase the acreage, Mbabu explains that the crop is an important multipurpose and underutilized crop that has high agronomic potential even on poor soils and whose production can be put into good use.
To augment her production, Grace Kiambi, a Khat farmer, intercropped her sweet potato vines in the Khat farm where she attests of doubling her production, for the Khat and the sweet potatoes.
Meru being a warmer region translates to the speedy growth of the crop.
“The warmer the area, the faster the crop grows,” Inyingi explains adding that the productivity potentiality of the crop in Meru is thus increased.
The fact that the crop can be planted at any time of the year and be intercropped with other crops such as maize and khat, helps increase the production. Harvesting can also be done occasionally. At times, farmers are advised to leave the roots on the ground for a little longer and only harvest them when the sweet potatoes are needed.
This provides a continuous supply of food supply during the off season.
Mbambu expounds: “Sweet potato has a wide ecological adaptation, is drought tolerant and has a short maturity period.”
This is a factor he considers of essence in curbing climate change while ensuring quality nutritious requirements to the societies.
“The sweet potatoes can either be boiled, baked, roasted or even eaten raw for quick nourishment as Africa has been termed a continent facing serious problems in food security. Most individuals are considered undernourished, due to the overreliance to rain-fed agriculture,” Inyingi explains citing that these aspects threaten livelihoods, and all the need to come up with combative measures like value addition.
Harvesting, according to Inyingi, can also be done subsequently as to guaranteeing a continuous food availability, an important dimension in food security.
With the sweet potato value addition in Maua, farmers have not only been cushioned against losses but have also been assured of a steady supply of nutritious products.