Small Enterprise

New techniques change fortunes of potato farmers

Mr Stephen Njenga in one of his potato stores. PHOTO | COURTESY
Mr Stephen Njenga in one of his potato stores. PHOTO | COURTESY 

After two decades of trying his hand at potato farming, Stephen Njenga from Kinangop, Nyandarua County resigned to the fact it can only be done for subsistence and not commercial purpose.

His neighbour Samuel Njuguna had also reached the same conclusion after also suffering years of unrewarding potato farming highlighted by declining yields and exploitation by middlemen.

“I got angry any time I heard people proclaim that potato and dairy farming are rewarding enterprises,” Mr Njenga told Enterprise, adding that he only kept at it out of lack of alternatives.

“Potato production on my acre of land reduced from 60 bags to less than 20 bags over the 20 years I have been doing this. The markets were also not good.”

Today, Mr Njenga narrates a different story. The local pastor has so far this year harvested approximately 86 bags of the crop from the same piece of land, a huge step up from the 15 bags he harvested in 2016.

Last year, he sold the crop for Sh800 per bag, earning him Sh12,000. To produce this crop, Mr Njenga spent Sh12,000. In essence, he was barely making money from the venture.

This year’s crop has seen him spend a total of Sh140, 000, but with the retail price of a bag being Sh3,000, he expects to make Sh258,000 from the crop by selling them as seeds to other farmers. These are profitable times for him.

Mr Njenga and Mr Njuguna say they owe their change of fortunes to embracing modern farming technologies through Victory Ushindi Farmers Group which the duo are members of.

The 20 members of the group met last year to deliberate on the way forward and their future as potato farmers. “Obviously, declining production and poor markets were automatically identified as our key challenges. A committee was formed to pursue the issues with the county government which dedicated an agronomist to assist us to improve on production,” says Mr Njenga.

The agronomist Dr Jecinta Mwirigi says the poor yields were due to poor farming skills and lack of quality seeds.

“They were doing things the traditional way, the exact way our grandparents did. They had also over recycled the seeds for decades,” said Dr Mwirigi.

She adds that farmers were either unwilling or were unaware that the more you invest in farming, the better the returns.  The first step was test the soil to establish its nutrient content as well as determine the presence of disease-causing pathogens.

The results of this test showed that the 20 farmers were using the wrong inputs and incorrect application procedures.

The farmers then set aside demonstration plots for practical lessons that followed the agronomist’s theory classes. After the first trial, Mr Njuguna harvested 12 bags from a quarter acre on the demonstration farm.

“This harvest marked an increase from three bags that I would get from a similar piece of land on my farm,” said Mr Njuguna.

He says with improved yields achieved by use of modern technology and best farming practice, potato farming is a good business considering that Nyandarua has three potato seasons in a year.

The farmers are specialising in Shangi potato variety which Dr Mwirigi says is best for Nyandarua climate and weather patterns.

Dr Mwirigi says the major challenges facing the farmers are access to soil testing laboratories, appealing to the county governments to bring the services closer to the people. She adds that the county government also should make quality seeds easily available to the farmers.