A Bright Future

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Potatoes are emerging as a staple crop in areas of East Africa, and are offering farmers in the region a promising — and increasingly profitable — alternative to grain crops.
 Ann Mbugua is a ware potato grower in East Africa, who for a long time had struggled to find somewhere to buy high-quality potato seed near her farm in the Kenyan village of Muchorwe.

Things turned around a few years ago, when she attended a seminar on potato seed and immediately saw the potential for building her own profitable seed potato operation.

Ann’s decision to start a seed potato business made a world of difference on her farm. Together with her husband Simon Mbugua, she now grows 30 acres of certified Irish potato seed that is increasingly in demand within Kenya by non-governmental organizations, farmer groups and individual farmers in her region.

Varieties they grow include Kenya Mpya, Sherehekea, Kenya Karibu Purple Gold and New Sangi, a Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute variety.

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Ethiopian farmers discussing crop diversification with potatoes.

“The future is bright as there is demand for certified and clean potato seed,” says Ann’s daughter Rosemary Mbugua, who is currently completing a Master’s in Agriculture and Applied Economics at Egerton University, the premier agricultural university in Kenya. “The business is growing as more and more farmers are becoming aware of the need to use good quality seeds. Most of them buy after their harvest does well.”

Rosemary does small-scale ware potato production in addition to her studies, and also helps out her parents with business advice. She believes the market for potato seed will continue to expand.

“Farmers are now very knowledgeable on the importance of using certified seed and the Government of Kenya recognizes the importance and potential of potatoes,” she says. “and there have been campaigns to increase food production and increase sustainability which is in line with [Kenya’s] Vision 2030.”

 

Vision 2030 is Kenya’s stated goal “to create a globally competitive and prosperous nation with a high quality of life by 2030.”

According to Canadian researcher and potato grower Peter VanderZaag, who also serves as a board member at the International Potato Center (CIP), potatoes are poised to become the number 1 food crop in Kenya, while maize has become less important. Today, almost 400,000 acres of potatoes are grown in Kenya, and that number is increasing.

VanderZaag has plenty of first-hand experience with potato cultivation in Africa — at one time, he was employed by CIP in Central Africa. This summer, VanderZaag visited East Africa for several weeks, primarily for the African Potato Association conference in Kenya in July, but also to tour operations in Ethiopia and Kenya where Canadian Foodgrains Bank and CIP have ongoing projects.

“What I have to admire about all the highlands of East Africa, from Ethiopia down to Malawi including Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya, is that they’re all very self-sufficient potato-producing countries,” says VanderZaag.

“They don’t import much seed. The varieties are uniquely adapted to their environment with heavy late blight pressure, so therefore they have their own system with their own seed and varieties. They’re primarily landlocked countries. It would be unfeasible to try to import seed.”

While in Kenya, VanderZaag stopped by Mbugua’s operation and was impressed by the dynamism of both the business and Mbugua’s approach to it.

It’s energy like this, he says, that makes the future bright for potato cultivation in Kenya.

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Woman farmer tending her potato crop in southern Ethiopia.
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Ethiopian farmer in his field of potatoes.

Food Security in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the potato is also growing in importance as a staple crop. Historically, the chief crop across the country has been Eragrostis tef or teff, a species of lovegrass native to the Ethiopian highlands. But according to VanderZaag, there isn’t enough teff produced nationally to feed the Ethiopian population.

According to VanderZaag, “If you do the math, with teff, they get less than a tonne of dry matter per hectare; that would be equivalent to a harvest of five tonnes of potatoes per hectare. You easily double and even triple production of food per hectare with potatoes.

“Potatoes are easy to prepare,” he adds.“Teff takes a lot of threshing and storing, so the economics and even the production of dry matter of food and quality carbohydrate and protein is much better [for potato] than from teff.”

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Potatoes for sale along a road in Kenya.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, farmers have been shifting production to potatoes, and acres sown to potato now numbers upwards of 400,000.

“Potato is becoming a secondary staple food for most of the rural poor in the highland areas of Ethiopia. Everything to the west of Addis Ababa is highlands and it’s very good for potatoes,” says VanderZaag.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank plays an important  Food Security role in Ethiopia, in part by helping to restore badly eroding landscapes through terracing and erosion prevention measures, ensuring that the poor farmers have adequate productive acreage to have enough to eat, while CIP is working on increasing awareness of the importance of seed quality and improved varieties.

Ethiopia faces a strange set of political circumstances surrounding agricultural land. In the 1970s and 80s, the government was socialistic and as a trickle-down effect, the government controls all the agricultural land. Additionally, it’s a pastoral society where animals are very important, says VanderZaag, which means that reserving higher-quality land for livestock is most important for Ethiopians. “In Ethiopia I would say they have too many cows — there is not enough land to cultivate because they have too much pasture for their cattle.”

There isn’t much crop diversification on display in Ethiopia. Cattle are kept in the valleys, while primarily teff is grown on the hills, and potatoes and other vegetable crops are grown in small garden patches near homes, partly to protect them from theft. In the long term, VanderZaag believes potato cultivation will increase on the rocky hills. But this will result in a greater need for improved inputs, such as manure and fertilizer.

The biggest challenge facing Ethiopian potato growers, however, is the same challenge faced by Ann Mbugua in Kenya — access to high-quality, disease-free seed. CIP is working on developing strategies to help farmers access good quality seed in Ethiopia, but their work is only a start. VanderZaag says ideally, the Ethiopian government will take over and continue to expand the country’s potato industry.

For such self-sufficient countries as Ethiopia and Kenya, partnerships with international groups such as CIP and Canadian Foodgrains Bank will continue to be important, but these really exist as a support to the innovation and resilience that already thrives in East Africa.

“We need to support them in developing their own industries to be self-sufficient in all aspects,” says VanderZaag.

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