Since its formation in 2008, members of Kuzoya Self Help Group in Chawia Ward, Taita Taveta County had never considered growing potatoes, even though it was grown in some neighboring wards. For some, they did not want to be involved in a crop that they had little knowledge about its production and marketing. For others, what they had seen on some potato fields was scary enough – a crop that appeared to be suffering from diseases like bacterial wilt and late light that seemed rather difficult to manage – and fear of low yields associated with negligible incomes.
The group, that had been formed out of the need to move from subsistence farming to farming as a business, had only French beans to grow on commercial basis since it was introduced in Chawia in 2008.
But being aware of the risks of relying on a single crop, the group composed of 11 men and 13 women was open to alternative cash crops. As fate would have it, the alternative turned out to be potato. In 2019, the United States Agency for International Development/Feed the Future funded Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) program, in collaboration with Taita County Government introduced potato as an alternative commercial crop in the region. And Kuzoya was one of the nine groups chosen from 148 farmer groups in Taita Taveta to pilot the new initiative. AVCD Potato Value Chain component is led by the International Potato Center (CIP).
Being a Ward that traditionally does not grow potatoes, AVCD first embarked on popularizing and training the farmers on good agronomic practices through potato learning farms, and supporting them access certified seed, according to Reuben Kamau, the PVC Field Officer for Taita Taveta County.
A wholesome package
‘AVCD did not just introduce us to potato farming by bringing us the seed. It was a complete package from where to get the improved and certified seed, hands on training on good agricultural practices including spacing, hilling, disease, and pest management and very importantly creating market linkages for our produce,’ observes Salamon Mwamburi, Kuzoya SHG secretary.
And what they experienced in their first season of planting in 2020 was enough reason for majority of the members to wholly embrace potato farming. ‘It was a season that opened our eyes to the vast opportunities, benefits, and profitability of potato farming,’ states Nashon Wadime, the group chairman. ‘As a group, we did a cost benefit analysis of potato farming, comparing with other crops. As it has turned out, besides being a very profitable venture, it is a major food security boost and an ideal fit as a climate change smart agricultural crop.’
‘Maize takes 6 months to mature while potatoes take less than 3 months. The returns are not even comparable: I planted 175 kg of potato seed and harvested 1 tonne. I earned close to 35,000 Kenya shillings (Ksh). I would hardly get 3 bags of maize from the same plot and would be lucky to sell at Ksh 2,500 per bag,’ compares Wadime adding, ‘The production costs of French beans are very high compared to potatoes. I would ordinarily spend not less than Ksh 6,000 on pesticides and other production costs during the cropping period of my French beans on my 0.25-acre plot. In addition, it is a very labour demanding crop. You must harvest French beans when ready regardless of whether you are sick or have other pressing and urgent commitments. It is due to these tangible benefits that we embraced potato farming as a group.’
For Stephen Mwashighadi, another group member, potato farming could not have come at a better time for him. He has been farming vegetables for a very long time but always grappling with market for his produce. ‘More often than not, I would not find the market for vegetables or sell at rock bottom prices for I had no option but to dispose them due to their very perishable nature. But because potatoes are not easily perishable like vegetables, I have room to store as I look for markets and bargain for good prices. More encouraging, is that should you lack the right market, you just consume it at home, not with French beans and other vegetables. You can even get some tubers from the maturing crop to feed your children in case you are hard up.’
These potato farmers are registered with Taita Taveta Potato Farmers Producer Organization (TTPFPRO), an umbrella producer group that is aggregating and marketing their produce, and also helping them access certified seed. For instance, during the last cropping season, the cooperative secured a supply agreement with two hotels in Taita Taveta to supply 500 kg of potatoes every week at a farmgate price of Ksh 35 per kg, which was a tall order for the farmers in the area to meet. But it is a challenge they have taken head on considering the passion and the increased acreage under potato.
It is not just farmers in wards in Taita Taveta that traditionally did not grow potatoes who are now excited about potato farming. In the neighboring Wundanyi Ward, Clara Malusha from Mwabalo Village has been growing potatoes for a long time.
But the last 2 years have been a gamechanger in potato farming for this member of Tinde SHG. ‘The trainings I received on good agricultural practices at learning farms changed the way I farm potatoes. I now apply 30 by 70 cm spacing. Changing from recycled seed to certified seed of the improved varieties more than tripled my yields. From my 0.25 acres, I could hardly harvest 100 kg. Now with Farida variety, I planted 20 kg on the same plot and reaped 300 kg. The 35 shillings per kg was very enticing. ’Malusha’s achievements with potato farming fired up her neighbor and group member, Terez Wambugha. ‘I did not need extra convincing that this is the crop I should invest in. I purchased 150 kg of seed for planting this season. I also convinced my daughter-in-law, Florence Mwabili, to try potato farming. After joining our group and attending trainings on potato farming, she also bought 150 kg of seed. We are excited and looking forward to a bumper harvest going by the robustness of the crop in the field.’
Very attractive to youth too
Gift Kisome, a fourth-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Animal Sciences at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Kisumu, was so impressed with the performance of the certified potato seed. With support from his mother, who is also a potato farmer, Kisome who is a member of Choke Youth Group, Mwatate, Wundayi, purchased 23 kg of Shangi variety that he planted in 2020. ‘It was my first taste of self-reliance. For the first time, I never requested for pocket money from my parents. The 7,000 shillings I earned from selling the 200 kg I harvested was enough for that semester in college. It was so satisfying for me that I could relieve my parents of the burden of my upkeep money.’
The Choke group that was initially involved in brick making, embraced potato farming in 2019 after receiving training on potato farming from AVCD. After being impressed with the yields from the 23 kg of potato seed they had planted in 2020 on their demonstration farm, the group more than doubled the acreage under demonstration farm, planting 50 kg of UNICA seed in 2021. The 384 kg of potatoes they harvested in 2020 was the highest potato productivity ever witnessed in the area, according to Mwanda Mughanje, the group Chairman.
Better informed on nutrition
In integrating nutrition in the potato interventions, AVCD mapped out households and trained caregivers of young children on appropriate nutrition for women of reproductive age and young children. ‘There has been good integration with the community health focal person and nutrition department during the agri-nutrition messaging,’ said Pauline Mugo, the county nutrition coordinator. ‘We expect to see improvements in nutrition outcomes due to the nutrition messaging on better consumption, we expect the money from potato farming can be used to purchase nutritious foods.’
Davis Mwangoma, the County Executive Committee Member for Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries, Taita Taveta county attributes the successful introduction and the thriving potato value chain in the county to the unique implementation approach taken by AVCD – embedding project implementation into county structure with county leading most field activities. And he is very impressed with the impact the program has had on the livelihoods of people in the county.
‘The impact created on the farming community is great. Within 3 years, the program has improved the livelihoods of people in the county. Farmers engaged in potato farming have increased from 500 before entry of AVCD to over 3,000 within the 2 years. The acreage has more than quadrupled from 50 acres in 2019, to over 200 acres today. Due to the generated interest, the passion, and realized benefits, the County Government has now elevated potato farming to a priority crop. Our target is to have 10,000 farmers engaged in potato farming in the next 2 years,’ states Mwangoma adding, ‘Our vision is to turn Taita Taveta into one of the leading potato-growing counties in the country.’