While sugar and maize industry in the country continues to be riddled in debt amid mismanagement and infiltration of brokers, sweet potato farming is increasingly becoming a darling to many farmers who did not give it a thought before.
Traditionally grown in Western Kenya, farmers in Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASALs) as well as Lower Eastern region, especially Machakos County, are slowly but surely embracing sweet potato farming as a substitute to traditional crops that were not doing well in the regions.
The farmers from eight counties are now joining their colleagues in the Western region mainly in Homa Bay, Migori and Busia who prioritize sweet potatoes at the onset of rains, which they previously would do for maize. Predominantly sugar belts such as Migori and Muhuroni are also fast becoming sweet potatoes areas.
Experts say that the sweet potatoes tubers take a shorter time to mature while crops such as sugarcane goes for 24 months meaning potato farmers could have three planting seasons annually and in effect earn as many times.
Esther Awino from Migori County who has been a sugarcane farmer for years says she made the decision to do sweet potato farming due to increased demand and adding that it was stress free when it comes to getting back her money invested in inputs and farming the crop.
“Potato farming has empowered me financially and now I’m able to live a decent life together with my husband and three children. I do not have to worry about brokers anymore,’ says the lady who traded in her cane field in 2017 to raise capital for potato farming.
A farmer from Webuye, Jared Wafula who also did dairy farming also abandoned it and opted for potato farming which he said has better returns compared to milk and maize which he did on a small scale basis.
Wafula observed that despite challenges like lack of storage and farm inputs, he felt more secure doing potatoes because the demand is high and he could be sure of a market for his produce.
Stakeholders in the potato sector have now called on the government to allocate the crop sufficient resources for research if it was to adequately contribute to food and nutrition in the Big Four Agenda.
According to them, the sector only gets Sh.3.7 million allocated to research, barely enough funding to adequately cater for the various researches needed in the sector so as to respond to demand in the industry.
Led by Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Okisegere Ojepat, the stakeholders noted that Kenya has the potential to be the largest market leader in the region in potato production, while ensuring enough production for its own population. Currently, Kenya lags behind Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Egypt.
Ojepat stated that the demand for sweet potatoes is increasing countrywide with entrepreneurs venturing into sweet potato processing, with a 98kg bag of potato currently retailing at Sh.3, 500 in Nairobi.
He however, noted that the allocation given to them from the national coffers is too little to further boost the research needed to spur potato grown so as to be competitive in the region, and called on the government to invest in research as it was the only way out for the realization of high breed potatoes.
Ojepat indicated that the potato sector still faced a myriad of challenges key among them lack of sufficient certified seeds, high cost of inputs, lack of storage facilities as well as lack of capacity for production.
“Production presents an opportunity for farmers to improve the food security situation and income from the sales of surplus,” he mentioned.
According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Crops System Director, Dr. Lusike Wasilwa, production of various varieties ranges from 35 to 45 tons per hectare depending on the region, variety and altitude. Current production is at 10-20 tons per hectare.
Dr. Wasilwa states that potato is a very viable substitute for bread and other food in that category, adding that the crop fills the gap in food security while at the same time providing a source of income to many small holder farmers.
She however was categorical that there was a general crop failure in many parts of the country due to unfriendly weather patterns, and that it was a national problem. There is even an acute shortage of certified potato seed.
This is the reason for she believes that increased research funding would see quality range of potatoes that were immune to diseases as well as those in demand by farmers realized.
“Potato farmers in the country have continuously been planting inferior seeds thereby making their yields very poor in terms of quality and quantity,” she observed, while adding that is the more reason why proper research is inevitable.
The country requires up to 100 tons of potato seeds annually, a capacity within the potato seed multiplication programme, which comes with a seeds storage section that the country is struggling to meet currently. The programme seeks to encourage farmers use certified seeds.
In 2017, Kenya produced 1.15 million metric tons of sweet potatoes with 1.036 million metric tons consumed as food while the rest went to waste. In 2018 Kenya exported 4, 385 kgs of sweet potatoes to Norway (4, 075) and UK (310).
The potato variety is a fast-maturing type rich in beta carotene and vitamin A, which are essential for growing children and expectant women. Potato is the second most consumed food crop by Kenyans after maize, and is cultivated by more than 800, 000 smallholder farmers countrywide.
By Alice Gworo