Report: Kenya offers lessons in potato, sweet potato seed systems in Africa


Job Mwendwa (left) an official of the Starlight Cooperative Society in Kuresoi North, Nakuru County and Mr Ezekiel Kirui of Sigowet Self-Help Group display certified potato seeds at a demonstration farm on July 20, 2022. 

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

Kenya is a good model for potato and sweet potato seed systems in Africa, the international Potato Centre Annual Report reveals.

This model adds the report will offer lessons to feed a growing population as climate change continues to disrupt agricultural production in the food-starved continent.

The annual report for 2021 dubbed "lab to field to scale: Demand-driven solutions for food system transformation" says potato and sweet potato produce more calories per hectare.

"The two crops take less time from planting to harvest than most crops, giving them the enormous potential to improve incomes and food and nutrition security," states the report.

However, the report notes that few farmers in sub-Saharan Africa achieve that potential, due primarily to pests and diseases spread by infected tubers or vine cuttings.

"Healthy vegetative seed is in short supply in this region, where farmers perpetuate low yields by sowing infected potatoes or vine cuttings saved from their last harvest or purchased locally," added the report.

New technologies

Potato is Kenya's second most important staple crop after maize, grown by more than 800,000 farm households.

It provides food for nearly four million households and supports an additional two million in the value chain.

The country's annual potato production is worth more than Sh51 billion, and smallholders are responsible for 83 per cent of it, but average yields of 6-10 tonnes of potatoes per hectare are holding most of them back.

To overcome this challenge, new technologies have been promoted to accelerate production, such as aeroponics and rooted apical cuttings.

While aeroponics is used by large operations, such as the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation, apical cuttings can also facilitate the decentralisation of commercial seed production.

Those technologies contributed to a more than 20-fold increase in certified seed potato production in Kenya from 2009 to 2018, and it continues to rise.

"Increasing farmer access to quality seed is the low hanging fruit among options for improving food production and incomes in these crops," says Ian Barker, Director of the International Potato Center's (CIP) Global Potato Agri-food Systems Programme.

CIP has spent more than a decade working with government partners, companies and farmers to catalyse the production and use of commercial seeds.

By the end of 2021, enough certified seed was being produced to plant in nine per cent of Kenya's potato fields.

And since farmers only need to replace their seed every three or four years to maintain good yields, nine per cent is enough to meet 27 per cent to 36 per cent of farmers' seed potato needs.

Commercial seeds 

The number of certified potato seed producers has increased steadily.

"A decade ago, there were just a few certified seed potato producers in Kenya, but now there are 28, plus out growers who multiply seed on behalf of registered producers," says Wachira Kaguongo, chief executive officer of the National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK).

NPCK promotes the use of commercial seeds among farmers.

"Many farmers don't buy certified seed because of the price and transaction costs, but interventions to decentralize production and distribution, such as NPCK's ViaziSoko farmers' App, are increasing its availability, while farmer awareness of its value is growing," Mr Karuongo explained.

Ms Josephine Njoki, who farms one acre in Mau Narok, Nakuru County says since she started planting certified potato seed she has doubled her income.

"I used to plant locally purchased potatoes but the harvest was slightly over 700kg but since I started planting apical cuttings my yield has doubled to 1,500kg," she said.

"My income from potatoes has allowed me to clear my Chama loan, purchased a motorbike for my son and renovated my house," she added.

Sweet potato has the same seed challenges as potato, so CIP has made comparable efforts to increase production and use of quality sweet potato planting material.

This included providing technical support to the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) to create a financially sustainable enterprise that produces virus-free starting material.

In 2021, KEPHIS sold more than 70,000 vine cuttings to dozens of seed producers and organisations that used them to grow vines to sell or give cuttings to farmers.

At the same time, CIP and county governments helped vine multipliers grow and distribute more than 3.4 million quality vine cuttings to families with young children, enabling them to grow pro-vitamin-A orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

Ms Jackline Mwangi Makei Mamo, who grows sweet potatoes and vines in Subukia, Nakuru County says she grows enough to feed her family of four and sell surplus sweet potatoes and vines.

"Sweet potato is improving my children's nutrition," says Ms Mwangi.

As more farmers plant quality sweet potato vines or seed potatoes, they too will reap better harvests and income improvements.