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Until three years ago, Kenyan potato farmer Richard Mbaria used to harvest a mere four tonnes of his crop from his land because of poor quality seeds, pests and diseases.

The middle-aged Mbaria would select seeds from his previous harvest by picking the smallest tubers that would not fetch good prices in the market, and then preserve them for the planting season, despite the disappointing yields from this approach.

He saw nothing wrong with this practice, as followed by most of the smallholder farmers in his village of Kapsita in Elburgon, Nakuru County, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region and beyond. Many of them can rarely afford certified seed or are unaware of the importance of using approved seeds.

But that was then. Today, Mbaria harvests an average of eight, up to 8.5 tonnes of potatoes per acre (0.404ha) and targets 10 tonnes to 12.5 tonnes soon.

The father of four did not transform his farming by some miracle. He has been trained, not only in better management of his crops, but also on selection and preservation of healthy planting seeds, which he is now selling to local farmers.

He is a beneficiary of training and advice offered through a project by Kenya’s Egerton University called Enhancing Access to High Quality Seed Potato for Improved Productivity and Income of Smallholder Farmers in Nakuru County, implemented under the Community Action Research Programme (CARP+).

The programme is one of the activities funded under the Transforming African Agricultural Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development (TAGDev) initiative by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation.

Learning at all levels

The aims of the seed potato project include educating farmers to plant only quality seeds, to properly test their soil and to effectively manage diseases and pests for increased productivity, and to organise them in marketing cooperatives for increased income, says Professor Anthony Kibe, the potato project’s principal investigator.

“About 10 years ago, the average yield for potatoes per hectare in Kenya was 22.5 tonnes. Today, it has dropped to around seven tonnes a hectare due to, among others, transmission of diseases through seeds. We are also asking farmers to take up improved varieties,” Kibe adds.

“One way of addressing the problem is by training a number of farmers to become producers of disease-free seeds for sale to their colleagues for increased yields and higher income,” he says.

Sadly, he notes, only 2% of Kenyan farmers who grow potatoes use certified seeds, a situation that hugely compromises yields.

So far, 3,800 farmers have been trained directly at Egerton through field days and small grower groups. In addition, some 12,000 others have benefited from the knowledge through outreach programmes and via the National Potato Magazine that regularly carries stories about the project.

Besides the farmers, the project aims to train at least 10 postgraduate students, including eight masters and two PhD students. Five of the masters students have graduated and two are close to completing, Kibe says.

In addition, 230 undergraduate students have gained from practical lessons as part of the project, with the aim of teaching them how to practically apply knowledge learned in the classroom. At the same time, some 70 staff members have participated in farmer extension and field activities.

“Learning happens at all levels, including at the farmer level. We want to get learners to be able to appreciate knowledge from farmers,” Kibe says.

One of the aims of the project is to develop a potato variety suitable for drier areas with less rainfall. Research into such a variety is led by Judith Natabona, a PhD student in plant breeding and a regional manager with the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC).

Natabona says the variety is now undergoing field trials to test its suitability and tolerance for heat and drought and could revolutionise Kenyan agriculture if it succeeds.

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Quality Seed Potato Enables Farmers to Move Beyond Poverty in Africa

Experience has shown that smallholders who use quality seed potatoes produce better harvests – and thereby enjoy greater food security and incomes – than farmers who don’t. One study in Kenya found that farmers who used high-quality seed doubled their incomes from the sale of ware potatoes in just two years. Nevertheless, the cost and difficulty of obtaining quality seed potatoes, and a lack of awareness of their potential, have prevented the vast majority of African farmers from using them. Egerton University thus continues to provide disease-free tubers or rooted apical cuttings and training farmers in good farming practices.

About CaWSA

The CaWSA- Centre showcases various water conservation, storage, abstraction and distribution systems and soil and moisture conservation technologies, innovations and management practices (TIMPS).

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Prof. Anthony M. Kibe,

CaWSA – Centre Coordinator
Crops, Horticulture and Soils Department, Egerton
University, Njoro, Kenya.


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