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May 13, 2009

Kenya to give renewed attention to potato cultivation

Potato is second most important food crop in Kenya after maize. Introduced in the Country a century ago by ritish settlers, potato is widely grown in the Kenyan Highlands, where altitude ranges between 1500-3000 meters above sea level.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, potato farming is a multimillion industry that employs 2.5 million people at all levels of value chain. Annual potato crop value is about Ksh5 billion at farm gate level and Ksh10 billion at the customer level. Potato consumption is expanding rapidly owing to changing dietary habits occasioned by urbanization. This is evidenced by high intake of potato crisps and fries among a burgeoning youthful population in urban centres. Per capita consumption of potato currently stands at 30 kgs per year as compared to per capita maize consumption of 60 kgs annually.

The Director, National Potato Research Centre at the Kenya Agriculture Research Centre (KARI), Jackson Kabira, says that Kenya used to be a net exporter of potatoes to India, Middle East and Europe three decades ago when its production was at the peak. However, potato production in Kenya” has stagnated since 1999-2007 due to factors associated with poor crop husbandry, climate change and low policy priority. The potato value chain is hobbled by a myriad challenges that includes poor marketing and storage, that dents farmers income and morale,” he says. He further attributes the decline of potato production to rains failure, and bacteria wilt.

Other bottlenecks that have dwarfed sustainable potato farming in Kenya include poor quality seeds and post harvest losses. Currently, Kenya produces an average of 800,000 metric tonnes of potatoes that translates into a National average of 7-9 tones per hectare as compared to Netherlands, which produces 40 tones per hectare.

The Kenyan government has recognized the critical role of potato in alleviating chronic hunger, against a background of dwindling production of maize and other staples. The realization comes against a prolonged dithering on the part of policy makers to give prominence to the staple.

“Since 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working on a potato policy, the Permanent Secretary has formed a potato task force and plans are at advanced stage to appoint a desk officer to deal with potato issues," says Kabira.

Kabira said that the renewed attention on potato would help improve husbandry, streamline marketing and boost farmers’ revenues. He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supply clean planting materials as well as subsidized farm inputs such as fertilizers to boost harvest.

Joseph Wango`mbe, Head of Finance and Administration, Africa Population and Health Research Centre(APHRC),observed that potato value chain is bedevilled by a myriad challenges such as unscrupulous middlemen, price volatility as well as glut. He says, “Potato has a crucial role to play during famine and therefore efforts must be stepped up in supplying clean seeds to farmers, organising markets as well as value addition to boost the competitiveness of potato.” He called on strengthening farmers association to boost their clout in bargaining for better prices on the commodity.

Africa Science News

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