The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) have embarked on promoting new farming technologies for breeding multiple disease free potato seed, in a bid to achieve a widespread take-off in productivity for the country’s potato farmers.
The KEPHIS Managing Director, Dr. Esther Kimani says only one per cent of potato farmers in the county use official seeds with the rest using re-cycled seeds from their farms and the informal sector thereby leading to low production of the crop.
Accordingly, the inspectorate is working with county governments, state agencies and the private sector in encouraging both small holder and large scale farmers to adopt aeroponics, hydroponics and stem cutting technologies used to produce basic potato seed.
Aeroponics is growing plants in air or mist without using soil, while hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil but using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
Initially adopted by KALRO from Peru, the technology is an improvement on the conventional way of breeding potato tubers from the soil.
In Peru it was introduced by the International Potato Centre. The tubers are grown in liquid chemical solutions with extra nutrients that increase resistance to disease. The extra nutrients include potassium nitrates, calcium, and phosphate minerals.
The technology consists of a meshed box partitioned into two. The partitions have holes through which the tubers grow.
The tubers in the lower box partition produce an extensive root network. The lower boxes have a timed mist spray that releases liquid nutrients every five minutes.
The box is wrapped with black plastic to create darkness but is aerated to ensure the tubers efficiently absorb the oxygen and carbon dioxide they need to grow. The aeration results in more tuber production.
“Shortage of certified potato seeds stagnated production of potatoes at seven tons per hectare against a potential of 40 tons. There is need to invest in production of certified seed as it fetches great opportunities and profits. Certified seed did not have bacterial wilt, black leg, nematodes or any other diseases. This is a relatively new technology in Kenya, but is gaining popularity due to low incidences of potato diseases,” observes Dr. Kimani.
On his part, the Director, Potato Research Centre-KALRO, Dr. Moses Nyongesa says the state agency is collaborating with KEPHIS in potato seed variety development and ‘hands-on’ trainings for seed producers.
“We are aiming at increasing collaboration with upcoming seed entrepreneurs in the private sector. In order to bring about capacity building, KALRO is looking forward to hosting trainings for potato seed developers,” Dr. Nyongesa said
The director explained that trainings will be fashioned for public and private agriculture professionals working in the potato seed development, production and supply. “We will target employees of seed companies, Educational and Research Institutions, individual and group potato growers and agriculture extension officers,” he observed.
So far 400 farmers have undergone training in Nyandarua on aeroponics, hydroponics and stem cutting technologies during a field day organized at Leshau Pondo.
The Nakuru County Governor, Lee Kinyanjui indicates that his administration was collaborating with KEPHIS, the National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) and Egerton University in seeking to unlock the over Sh.15 billion potential of potato farming in the devolved unit.
“The county government is collaborating with KEPHIS and certified seed producers to ensure that farmers access affordable and modern technologies that guarantee production of high yielding and disease resistant planting material,” he notes.
He says that Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) is working with agricultural experts from the county to promote the uptake of hydroponics potato seed production by small scale farmers in the county.
General Manager, Quality Assurance at KEPHIS Simeon Kibet indicates that in the past five years, the Inspectorate has released 46 new potato varieties.
“In line with the Big 4 Agenda, potato has been identified as one of the focus crops for nutrition and food security. We want our farmers to adopt new technologies such as stem cutting for potato production.
Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is the second most important food crop in Kenya, after maize,” he asserts.
The top producing potato counties are Nyandarua (29.8 per cent), Nakuru (18.9 per cent) and Elgeyo Marakwet (16.2 per cent). Other potato producing regions include Makueni, Embu, Tharaka Nithi, Samburu, Kajiado and Kwale.
Kibet explains that stem cutting technology helps reduce potato seeds production time from over a month to less than three weeks
“Stem cutting besides addressing the shortage of certified seeds is also promoting the availability of clean seeds to farmers in all potato growing zones in the country.
This technology is faster and simple to use because it involves production of potato seeds through stem cutting making it easier to propagate the seedlings before transplanting. The resultant cutting is similar to a nursery grown seedling only that it is grown through vegetative means and not from the seeds” says the General Manager, Quality Assurance
The KALRO tissue expert, Penina Mwisa explains that instead of potato mini-tubers, the cuttings are produced from tissue culture plantlets in a screen house and after rooting, they are planted in the fields.
“These cuttings can stay in a screen house for about two to three weeks for them to develop proper roots before transplanting. A single cutting can produce up to 24 tubers which are then multiplied for two seasons before harvesting.
However, farmers cannot propagate the seedlings at farm level but once they purchase the seedling, they can plant them in a nursery and later plant them for propagation” states Mwisa.
The Research and Development Officer at National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK), Henry Kemjo said though there is a potato seed demand of 100,000 tonnes in the country only 5000 tonnes is produced and supplied annually. He says that KALRO produces 300 tonnes of potato seeds every year.
Johanna Kemei, a large scale potato farmer from Molo Sub-County states that using aeroponics guarantees a grower five times more tubers per plant compared to when tubers are planted in the soil.
“Tubers planted in the soil take over three months before yielding planting material. They are also vulnerable to pest and disease attack. The screen house enclosure used in aeroponics technology prevents such attacks” said Kemei.
Countrywide, the crop is grown by 600,000 to 800,000 farmers with a total production of 1 to 1.4 million tonnes worth Sh.30 to Sh.40 billion per year. Small scale farmers contribute 83 per cent of the total production.
The potato sub sector supports 3.8m people directly and indirectly with The National Potato Council of Kenya putting its worth at over Sh.50 billion.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) reports that on average only about 20 per cent of farmers in Africa use seeds of improved varieties.
However, in the last two years farmers who have used certified seeds have doubled their yields from two million to four million mega tonnes of cereals, soya beans and groundnuts, in monetary terms this has resulted to Sh.220bn in incomes for the smallholder farmers.
By Anne Mwale