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Like maize, Irish potatoes play key role in Kenya’s food security agenda. Unfortunately, a vast majority of potato farmers in the main producing counties have limited access to certified potato seeds, and thus continue to depend on low-yielding traditional varieties.
Potatoes, which reach maturity within a relatively short period of three months, have a huge potential to earn farmers good incomes.
It is against this background that a certified seed production facility was set up at Kisima Farm off the Meru-Nanyuki road in Meru County for the sole purpose of producing quality certified seeds for small and large scale farmers.
Mr Saidi Abiud (pictured), Kisima Farm’s Potato Seed Production Manager says at the 200 hectares facility started in 2009 facility, they produce potato minitubers in large volumes using aeroponics technology.
Aeroponics is a method of growing plants in a mist or air environment without using any soil.
Under aeroponics system, roots grow suspended in air in uniquely designed greenhouse where fertigation (injection of fertilisers), planting, harvesting and storage of quality potato seed is done.
This technology has many benefits. First, it requires no soil and this makes it easier to harvest as there is less ‘cleaning’ to be done. The process is zero-waste and is environmentally-friendly.
Some of the seed varieties they produce include Dutch Robjin, Sherekea, Asante, Panamera, Taurus, Unica, Sagitta, Voyager, Shangi and Challenger.
The Sherekea, Asante, Unica, Dutch Robijn are from local breeders while others like Sagitta, Panamera, Voyager and Challenger are from a breeder in the Netherlands.
In a bid to improve them, Abiud, explains that all these varieties are first taken to a tissue culture lab at the stage of invitro plantlets to clean up any viruses.
But they must first be approved by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis), before they are received at Kisima Farm. The invitro plantlets are then planted under specialised care in hydroponics and aeroponics units.
“By avoiding soil, we get more minitubers and soil borne diseases and pests are eliminated.”
Speaking of diseases, Abdi notes that there are about 40 viruses that affect the potato crop, with potato leaf roll virus and bacterial ring rot among the common culprits.
It is these diseases that the Kephis laboratories at Muguka and other facilities at Kisima Farm have sought to eliminate to ensure farmers have disease-free seeds that are high yielding.
Farmers stuck to old ways
Despite the work that Kisima is doing, sadly, some farmers are still stuck to their old ways.
Kisima Farm’s General Manager Charlie Dyer says many potato farmers continue to use the low-producing traditional variety, yet the certified seeds are affordable and within reach.
Mr Dyer points out that a farmer planting certified seed can produce three times more than one planting traditional varieties which are susceptible to diseases and vagaries of the weather.
“By planting traditional seeds, a farmer can hardly produce seven tonnes of potatoes in an acre as compared to certified seeds, where a farmer can get up to 27 tonnes per acre. There is a big difference,” he says.
At the farm, they produce 4,000 tonnes of certified seeds annually.
They sell bulk seeds to county governments of which Bomet and Meru County Government are their biggest clients.
To guarantee quality, everything at the facility is highly mechanised and almost every operation is done by machines. About 50 workers are stationed at different parts where more than 10 high-yielding varieties are nurtured, up to the point the seeds are ready to be collected for both small scale farmers and huge potato plantations spread in Meru and other parts of Kenya.
When the minitubers in the aeroponics are harvested, they are transferred to the mega cold room, for hardening and sprouting, before they are planted in different parts of the vast farm.
The team at Kisima is on a mission to ensure every potato farmer uses certified seeds for maximum yields.