How researchers and farmers ensure your plate of chips is safe to eat and always available!

Harvesting Potatoes in a farm

The importance of the potato meal on the table for many Kenyans cannot be overstated. It is a delicacy that ranks second most important after maize, giving farmers a reliable crop to reap returns from.

However, to get maximum returns, it is critical for farmers to use quality certified seed.

Getting the right seed potato has often been a big challenge, with many farmers preferring to use seed saved from a previous harvest and repeating the cycle every season.

This often leads to poor yields and diseased potatoes with myriads of problems. But to ensure that farmers get quality seed that will yield maximum returns, a lot of effort goes into it.

In our past issues, we have written about visits that we made to a couple of seed potato growers, providing useful information.

In this issue, we want to bring you the story of the journey of the seed potato from the laboratory to the time it is planted, from mini-high value tubers that cost as much as Ksh22,000 per kilo to the time it is ready to be sold to farmers and about the actors involved.

Recently, the Smart Farmer team was privileged to walk with Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) personnel, to understand what goes on behind the scenes to ensure that you get the right seed potato and the country remains ‘potato secure’.

Our tour began at Sansora Farm in Mau Narok, a 3,000-acre farm located in the quiet agricultural town of Njoro, in Nakuru County. Sansora has been contracted to grow seed potato by seed producing company Frontier.

The potato seed it is planting has been procured from the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) potato complex in Molo. It will plant the potatoes on 100 acres. To spice up our trip, we were in time to see how mechanised potato cultivation is done.

We find a shiny red tractor on the farm. It is used perform four simultaneous roles, creating ridges, fertilising, laying the seed potato firmly into the ground and heaping; all this in the span of a few seconds.

Despite the sunshine, the place is chilly and we wrap our coats a tad bit tighter around our bodies, as the employees watch us in amusement.

“Today, the weather is good. Normally it’s so cold that by 4pm,” they tells us. Sansora Farm will do everything on the 100 acres using machines and Manager Boniface Kinyua says it is cheaper than hiring employees.

“I’ve been a farm manager for 24 years. Success at large-scale farming calls for a lot of skill, experience and mechanisation,” says the slender, be-spectacled, and bearded man.

Mechanisation increases efficiency, reduces loss from theft and saves time. In Mau Narok, if you fail to cover the potatoes well, you will find them dug up and gone.

Sansora opted to lease machines, which came with qualified technicians to do all the calibrations required.

Proper calibration of the planter matches the speed and size of the seed potato and ensures correct spacing and wellbalanced fertiliser application.

The planter has narrow rear wheels, which enable it to pass between the rows without damaging the crop.

A trailer attached to the tractor carries the potato seed. During loading, all the rotten potatoes are removed.

Sansora grows potatoes under the supervision of Kephis and during our visit, extension officers had come for a field inspection to monitor and give the manager advice.

Part of the Kephis mandate is to assist and control all certified seed production. It ensures that quality disease-free planting materials are used, in order to get disease-free seeds for the market. The organisation also monitors and controls the quality of seed the companies produce.

Earlier, Sansora had carried out soil testing to establish the status of the soil and identify the ideal crop to be planted, through Kephis to avert diseases.

Next on our agenda is a visit to the ADC, a seed multiplication organisation that Kephis also works closely with.

We visited ADC Sirikwa to understand exactly what they do.

In the potato value chain, there are multipliers who concentrate fully on breeding seed potato. ADC Sirikwa is one such breeder which produces minitubers from tissue culture.

Breeding is sensitive business and the greenhouses and laboratories are manned by highly qualified staff.

The potatoes that result from the tissue culture cuttings are referred to as minitubers. There are various classes of seed referred to as generations, as internationally agreed. In Kenya, these classes are as follows:

  1. Prebasic seed
  2. Breeders seed
  3. Basic seed
  4. Certified generation 1(C1) and
  5. Certified generation 2 (C 2) in that order and these are very valuable.

A CI breed potato planted on only five acres, produces enough seed potato to cover 75 acres.

In fact, the tubers are so valuable that a one-kilo bag can cost a whopping Ksh22,000! It is through this delicate breeding that seed producers are able to get the quality potato tubers used to generate high quality potato seed, whose generation can be traced.

The age of the potato is important and the younger it is, the higher its status.

When Sansora potatoes mature, they will be taken to ADC Molo for testing grading and packaging into 50kg lots and stored in cold rooms.

The seed can remain in the cold rooms for as long as nine months in perfect condition.

However, before sealing the lots, Kephis inspects each lot, picks a sample and sends it to its quarantine division in Muguga, Nairobi.

At Muguga, the samples are tested for diseases. They are picked from both the lot at ADC and the farm that has produced the potato, to be more thorough. This ensures that problems are detected early and diseased potatoes rejected.

The quarantine division relies on four labs. One tests for nematodes, the second for viral diseases, the third for bacterial diseases and the final one, the molecular lab, acts as a reference for all the other three, and tests for all types of quarantine pathogens.

When the quarantine division confirms that all is well, the approved lots at ADC Molo are sealed and labelled ready for release to the market.

Apart from checking for diseases, Kephis researches on different varieties of potatoes, produces and stores the different varieties.

Thus, if there is a shortage of a certain variety, they begin production through tissue culture to address it. Kephis also enhances certification and inspection and ensures seed multiplication and distribution are done, especially for the varieties in demand by farmers.

READ MORE IN EDITION 41

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