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February 14, 2011

Erratic rainfall driving switch from maize to potatoes in Kenya

by Geoffrey Kamadi

Increasing unpredictable rainfall is driving a surge in potato planting in Kenya as growers of maize, the national staple crop, look to diversify toward more drought-tolerant crops.

Maize has been Kenya’s primary food crop for decades and is a major source of revenue for between 3.5 million and 4 million farmers, but unpredictable rainfall in the country is lowering yields and has led to rising food insecurity.

That is a particular problem because two-thirds of farmers in Kenya try to grow maize on land largely unsuitable for its cultivation, said Stanley Guantai of the Kenya Maize Development Programme, a U.S. AID funded effort to boost rural income.

Faced with worsening droughts, farmers are being encouraged to plant crops such as sorghum and millet instead of maize, Guantai said, but many are also opting to grow potatoes – a crop that is fast-maturing compared to maize and can be used to bridge the gap during shortages of the staple grain.

It remains unclear precisely how many farmers are abandoning maize. However, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, the number of potato farmers has grown from 500,000 in 2003 to 800,000 today.

Production nearly quadrupled between 1992 and 2008, to 2.1 million tonnes, and potato cultivation now employs 2.5 million Kenyans, said Wilson Songa, Kenya’s agriculture secretary. Kenya’s population is 40 million.

Gradually, at least some families are coming around to the idea that maize may have to give way to potatoes on their dinner plates.

Margaret Vugutsa, a seamstress living on the outskirts of Nairobi, says that her family from western Kenya grew up eating ugali, a traditional and widely popular Kenyan porridge made of maize meal. But Vugutsa, a 50-year-old mother of four, says ugali has become expensive, with a 2 kg packet of maize flour – enough to provide a scarce two meals for her family - now selling for 85 Kenyan shillings (just over $1).

“On the other hand, potatoes of the same price can provide up to three, sometimes four meals for my family,” she said.

A meal of ugali also needs to be complemented by vegetables or meat, while potatoes can be eaten on their own, she said.

The increasing unpredictability of weather patterns in Kenya, believed linked to climate change, has dealt a severe blow to the country’s economy, particularly as droughts have become longer and more frequent over the past two decades.

Drought-related losses amounted to 240 billion Kenyan shillings ($3 billion) between 2000 and 2009, according to Nsanya Ndanshau, regional manager of the Eastern Africa Grain Council. The council promotes the exchange of information on matters affecting the grain industry in the East African region.

Maize yield per acre in particular has been dropping, said Abraham Mbugi, an East African sales executive with Monsanto in Kenya.

“Whereas 10 to 15 years ago an acre of land in the fertile Kenya highlands could produce an average of 20 bags of maize, weighing 90 kg each, the same land now produces 15 bags on average,” Mbugi said.

The highlands account for up to 60 percent of Kenya’s maize production. According to Mbugi, yields in the less fertile regions, which account for the balance of production, have declined from an average of six bags per acre to four bags over the same period.

As annual per capital maize consumption falls in Kenya – it is now below the minimum 98 kg per year recommended by the government - consumption of potatoes is slowly rising. Over the past 15 years, consumption of potatoes has increased from 25 kg to about 30 kg annually per capita, said Jackson Kabira, head of the National Potato Research Programme at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute’s (KARI) Tigoni Centre.

“As Kenya’s main staple food, maize production has fallen short of demand due to frequent droughts and low productivity,” Kabira said. “This sub-optimal productivity has consigned about half of Kenya’s population to a status of food insecurity, which could easily be met by the humble potato.”

Kabira contends that increasingly unpredictable weather patterns brought on by climate change now makes potato farming more competitive than maize farming.

“The potato production cycle is much shorter compared to that of maize,” he said. Potatoes can also yield crops up to seven times greater by weight than maize.

Interest in growing potatoes in Kenya has now surged to the point that KARI is struggling to keep up with demand for seed potatoes and new varieties. The Ministry of Agriculture says that more than 60,000 tonnes of seed potatoes are now required annually. Short of land on which to produce them, KARI has been forced to delay the release of three potato varieties originally unveiled in May 2010.

KARI officials now fear they may fail to reach their target of supplying 20 to 40 tonnes of basic potato seed to farmers in the next 24 months.

To speed production, KARI is looking into using aeroponic technology, which makes it possible to grow potato tubers in water mist instead of soil. KARI’s centre at Tigoni has demonstrated that aeroponics can produce more than 50 mini-tubers per plant, compared with between 5 and 10 mini-tubers for plants grown in soil.

Commercial production of seed potatoes through aeroponics, already underway in China and Korea, is only now being introduced in Kenya by the Ministry of Agriculture in conjunction with donor agencies, including the Peru-based International Potato Centre.

Kenyan potato farmers, such as 60-year-old Patrick Njogu Gitau, say they are impatient to get their hands on the new seed.

Gitau cultivated Asian cabbages for 13 years because of the high price they fetched, but in 2006 a decline in once-regular rainfall led him to switch to potato farming, which proved even more profitable on his two-acre plot in Kiambu County.

Today Gitau is chairman of the Kenya National Potato Farmers’ Association, which formed in 2006 and now has 10,000 members. To meet demand and boost profits, he said he has rented additional land to put into potato production.

Junghae Wainina, a Kenyan businessman, similarly has profited from the potato boom by operating a potato cooling plant in Nyandaruea, a few kilometres from Nairobi. The 500 million Ksh ($7.4 million) plant, which opened in 2005, provides long-term storage for up to 6,000 tonnes of potatoes and is the only one of its kind in East Africa.

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