By Rootooba correspondent, 21 May 2020
The Kenyan Government has launched a certified potato seed programme targeting six counties in the country designed to enhance seed multiplication and distribution to small-scale farmers.
Potato is the second most important crop after maize that is produced in 20 of Kenya’s 47 counties under varying socio-economic and climatic conditions.
Potato farmers in these counties continue to face various production challenges leading to an average production of 10 tons per hectare against a potential of 60 tons per hectare.
Climate change has also continued to be a major challenge generally to agriculture including potato production and although Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has made several efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 is a threat that is undermining those efforts and is likely to exacerbate these effects by affecting labour supply on farming.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya said the ministry in conjunction with KALRO has released 25 metric tonnes of potato basic seed for planting to the counties.
The basic seed is meant to produce 2500 metric tonnes of certified seed after six months or two field multiplications, which will be added to the current annual production of 6,500 tonnes of certified seed.
“This will improve farmer access to certified potato seed which will mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on potato production,” Munya said.
Munya explained the ministry and KALRO have identified 24 Common Interest Groups (CIGs) in six counties to produce the seed for farmers as well as provide planting material of various commodities.
Working with Elgeyo Marakwet, Bomet, Nyandarua, Uasin Gishu, Nyeri and Taita Taveta, Munya confirmed that CIGs have already been identified and screened. In addition, farms have been sampled by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) to assure suitability of identified seed bulking sites and that land preparation and procurement of planting inputs is undertaken.
Potato, the CS noted is one of the value chains that is projected to add 2,500 metric tonnes of certified potato into the national seed supply annually through this two-year project.
He reiterated that this would be achieved through training of county extension staff on climate-smart potato production practices with an emphasis on revitalizing seed production and distribution. So far, 60 staff from six counties have been trained.
“Due to the COVID – 19 pandemic, invasion by desert locusts and the current floods resulting from the on-going rains, it is further anticipated that the farming community will be adversely affected in terms of food security and livelihoods”, the CS noted.
He directed all institutions under the Ministry to focus towards the Seedlings Initiative under the Social Corporate Responsibility (CSR) by increasing the number of seedlings for distribution during the October, November, December (OND) rains in addition to the ready seedlings that were to be distributed during the March, April, May (MAM) rains and are being preserved in the stations.
“We plan to have a major seedlings distribution exercise in the next season to farmers and the target is to issue more than three (3) times the number of seedlings that you are currently preserving”, he said.
On potato seed production, the CS noted that KALRO is implementing the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP), which seeks to build resilience in the agricultural sector in order to promote inclusive growth and shared prosperity.
KALRO Director General Dr. Eliud Kireger explained that the basic seed is the seed produced under the highest level of genetic control to ensure the seed is genetically pure and accurately represents the variety characteristics identified by the breeder during variety selection.
This seed, he said requires further multiplication and is therefore given out to seed producers to multiply it for wide distribution to farmers and as expected the quantities are much smaller than certified seed.
“Certified seed production is set to increase by 61.5 per cent and it is expected to contribute to potato production by 300 per cent over 40 metric tonnes per hectare compared to the current output levels of 10tonnes/ha. Yield potential currently stands at 60 tonnes per hectare,” said Dr. Kireger.
Currently, a bag of certified seed of 50 kg bags is going at Ksh 3,500 and once these certified seeds are presented in the market, the prices are likely to come down to Ksh 2.700.
Some of the other contributions by KALRO towards Covid 19 are 3000 seedlings of sweet yellow passion, 100,000 splits of napier grass, 10,000 cuttings of cassava, 3 million vines of sweet potato, 100,000 face masks among others.
Potatoes are the crop with the highest nutrition value for the smallest amount of water and land needed hence the Kenyan government choosing potato as an alternative for its current dependency on maize.
The CEO of National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) Wachira Kaguongo, notes that despite consumption of potato and potato products growing rapidly compared to regional production, investment is required to develop a network of local seed multipliers.
A similar observation is made by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), where the average potato consumption in the East African Community has grown by approximately 300 percent over the past two decades, but farmers have failed to benefit from this due to low harvests, use of bad seedlings and adoption of bad fertilizers.
Globally, potato is grown successfully in tropical and subtropical climates, with about100 out of 140 potato growing countries being located in the tropical and sub-tropical regions.
According to Dr. Eric Magembe, a research scientist with the International Potato Center (CIP) the Irish potato is an increasingly critical food source in Kenya, ranking as the second most important staple starch crop. Yet a 2004 survey of 227 farmers in Kenya revealed that 54 percent of them lost 30 to 60 percent of their yield to late blight disease (LBD). This is similar to the losses suffered in Uganda, which range from 30 to 57 percent. The average potato yields in sub-Saharan Africa are four times lower than those in industrialized nations, mostly due to the effects of diseases, particularly late blight.
In addition to late blight disease, farmers grapple with Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN), as observed by Mathew Musumbale Abang, Lead Technical Officer, FAO. The disease was first detected in Kenya in 2015, posing a serious threat to potato farmers, most of whom are smallholder growers in rural areas. ‘‘If uncontrolled, PCN can lie dormant in the soil for 20 years and cause up to an 80 percent reduction in Kenya’s potato yield,’’ Abang observed.
The importance of potato in Kenya is anchored on its role in alleviating poverty and fighting hunger as well as income generation thereby playing a dual role as a food and cash crop with the potential of helping the country realize the set objectives for vision 2030 and also ease the strain of food price inflation through diversification of the crop.