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December 30, 2010

Kenya to adopt soil-less, mid-air potato-breeding technology

by James Karuga

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) has introduced a new farming technology for breeding multiple disease free potato tubers in a bid to achieve a widespread take-off in productivity for the country’s potato farmers.

In Africa, according to a 2007 report by Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Egypt has the highest potato output at 2.6 million tonnes.

Kenya ranks 8th, harvesting around 0.8 million tonnes a year from an estimated 120,000 hectares. This translates to an average yield per hectare of 6.7 tonnes.

But output could be higher, says Kari, which reports that currently only one to two per cent of Kenyan farmers use certified potato breeds.

Over 90 per cent of Kenyan farmers still plant potato varieties with an optimum yield of only seven to 10 tonnes per hectare. The varieties are also susceptible to diseases and virus attacks and are not economical in the long run.

But the challenge of making better breeds available to farmers is hampered by the low numbers of reproduction laboratories in Kenya. Only the Agricultural Development Corporation in Molo and Kisima Farm in Timau breed new potato varieties. Meanwhile, many private breeders shy away from commercial potato tuber reproduction due to the high costs involved. Most local private breeders opt to breed seeds such as maize, which are less expensive.

Kari hopes that by importing a high-yield potato breeding technology it can attract more private breeders into the industry. Dubbed aeroponics, the new technology grows potato tubers in “air” without the use of soil.
Adopted by Kari from Lima in Peru last year, 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 box has 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.

Project specialist Joseph Ngaruiya said using aeroponics guarantees a farmer five times more tubers per plant compared to when tubers are planted in the soil. Also, “it guarantees sequential harvesting of tubers for six months,” said Mr Ngaruiya.

Tubers planted in the soil guarantee an optimum three months of yielding tubers. They are also vulnerable to pest and disease attack. The screen house enclosure of the aeroponics technology prevents such attacks.

The technology has been tested at Kari, Tigoni, using a 15m by 5m meshed box with 600 plants. Each plant is capable of producing 50 tubers. This amounts to 30,000 tubers produced in six months.

When Kari planted 5,000 of the tubers on a piece of land in a trial, the researchers harvested 14 bags of 50 kilogrammes each on the first harvest. In the second and third generation harvests they forecast yields of 140 and 1,400 bags respectively.

However, the technology is pricey: a 15m by 5m screen box with its associated accessories costs just over Sh250,000. The Aeroponics nutrient solution costs around Sh4,000.

Kari’s Tigoni potato research centre offers technical assistance on mixing the solutions. By introducing this technology to Kenya, Kari hopes to produce higher quality, disease free tubers for farmers.

Business Daily Africa

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