Adding value to sweet potatoes is fetching Western Kenya farmers more money. Rising demand for the root and its products is linked to costly inputs for maize farmers, diminishing land sizes, and the high cost of living.
The trend has picked up speed mainly in Nyanza, thanks to the Anglican Church’s initiative. Farmers, under Kabondo Sweet Potato Savings Co-operative in Homa Bay County, have been making products such as bread, cookies, crisps, chips, jam, juice, chapati and mandazi from the crop.
Started two years ago, the group has 900 members and 7,000 registered farmers.
‘‘The sweet potato ranks third in terms of popular food crops after maize and Irish potatoes, indicating that the crop is grown mainly for commercial purposes rather than for home consumption,’’ said Sanya Wandera, the group’s project co-ordinator.
The crop is considered an important secondary food crop for many rural Kenyans whose staple diet is maize. Mr Wandera said that the initiative was informed by the desire to bring to an end unscrupulous middlemen who had formed cartels to short-change farmers.
He said that Nyanza region produces about 200 tonnes of potatoes per week, most of which goes to waste due to poor storage and marketing. With an initial investment of Sh5 million from donor funding, the group set up a bakery and a processing plant.
Once sweet potatoes are harvested, they are dried, then milled in maize mills. At the bakery, potato and wheat flour are mixed in the ratio of 2:1 and baked. The group’s oven can produce 200 loaves of bread, 600 doughnuts, and a tonne of cookies daily.
The farmers also use the MFarm website to enquire about prices of their products in different parts of the country. Local farmer Carren Okello said that the initiative had raised sweet potato production and food security in the region.
The project, she said, had benefited group members who could borrow money and repay their loans. John Nyamoro, a farmer, said that they had the potential to feed the country.
‘‘I don’t see why we import food from other regions when we can produce it here,’’ he said. Mr Nyamoro said that Kenyans could harness their rich land and good weather to make the country self-reliant in food production.
Potato varieties grown in the region include red-coloured Kanchwere which has yellow flesh. The variety matures in six to seven months. After maturity, the potato retains high quality for three to six months when left unharvested.
Farmers said that the average yield is about 10 tonnes per hectare. The average per capita consumption of sweet potatoes in the country is about 24kg per year, with consumption mainly based in western Kenya.
The variety is also cultivated for home consumption where sequential, or piece meal, harvesting is practised to prolong the supply of fresh potatoes. It is also suitable for commercialisation because it has a two-week shelf life after harvesting. Other popular varieties include Nyakabondo, Nyakathuri, Gikuyu, and Obera.
They have a short maturity period of between three and four months, high yields, and moderate shelf life of up to seven days. The Nyakabondo variety fetches the highest price on the market.
The only disadvantage of the variety is that its quality deteriorates fast when left unharvested beyond a month after maturity. The crop is harvested two to three times a year.
Despite the potential of sweet potatoes to help meet Kenya’s food needs, the root is yet to be fully exploited. In Kenya sweet potato tending is mainly concentrated in western Kenya and in Coast and Central regions on a small scale.