Angelica Mwaruruma, a farmer in Chawia sub-county in Taita Taveta, could wait for six months before harvesting her maize crop. She also planted one season in a year. That meant it took her longer to make decent income and put adequate food on the table.
Maize farming has been tough, limiting the opportunities that lie beneath the soils of the otherwise agriculture-rich county.
Farmers have, therefore, been forced to change from growing maize to crops such as potatoes and green grams that mature faster.
Through Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD), an initiative that has seen farmers transition to new enterprises, farmers have been growing potatoes and French beans as an alternative to maize.
The returns are much better than growing maize, says the farmers.
“I get 12 bags of potatoes from my small piece of land whereas I used to get only two bags of maize,” says Ms Mwaruruma, pointing out that the returns are far much better than French beans because of low cost of production.
In her quarter of an acre, the farmer makes a net profit of Sh11,000 from potatoes whereas she could earn Sh8,000 from French beans and hardly Sh5,000 from maize. A kilo of potato is selling at Sh60 at the farm gate.
“I never knew that in my lifetime I will have my own bank account, thanks to potato farming. It has enabled me to open an account where I make some savings,” she tells Enterprise.
AVCD programme, which is spearheaded by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has had a positive impact in the county, increasing both the farmers’ income and the acreage under the crop in less than three years since it was started.
The value chain aims to reach at least 35,000 household in Kenya with high-quality seed of improved potato varieties to increase income by at least 20 percent and value of sales by 30 percent.
Anthony Kariku, Irish potato coordinator in Taita Taveta County, says the AVCD programme has come as a boost to the farmers in the region both in terms of income and nutrition.
“Farmers are now food secure and they have money in their pockets after changing from maize to potato,” says Mr Kariku.
Farmers, he notes, are now harvesting up to 14 tonnes an acre from a low of 5 tonnes before they had undergone the AVCD training. Before the training, Mr Kariku says, only 500 farmers were growing potatoes, a number that has so far surged to 3,800 as more people embrace the crop due to its good returns.
The training entailed teaching farmers good agronomical practices, which include selection of good seed, diseases and pests management and record-keeping.
Mr Kariku notes that the crop has now become one of the major income earners in the county, ranking third as macadamia takes the first spot.
The main challenge for farmers has been access to clean seed. However, because of the potential that the crop has in the region, International Centre for Potato has moved in to help farmers not only with procuring but also training on seed multiplication.
Angleton Mwanjewe, another farmer in the region, says potato is much more lucrative and has enhanced food security in the area as the maize crop continues to record a decline in production in the recent years.
Farmers have formed cooperative societies where the produce are aggregated especially when the market is flooded and prices depressed. This enables them to sell later when prices are better.
About 800,000 farmers, mostly smallholder, now grow potato which is increasingly becoming a key source of food security and income. Consumption of the potatoes is also growing rapidly and it is currently ranked the second most important staple food crop after maize.
The recent decision by Treasury to impose a 30 percent duty on potato coming outside of the East Africa Community, is a good news to the local growers who say they plant the variety that meets the market requirement.
The cooperative plans to invest in a cold storage plant to strengthen the Irish potato value chain and protect potato farmers from decreased prices during a market glut.