A sweet potato glut in Kirinyaga coupled with poor prices of milk have spawned a new product and business line in the form of portagurt — a yoghurt made from milk and sweet potato.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) introduced a high-yielding sweet potato three years ago that was adopted widely by the Kirinyaga farmers. Rich in betacarotene, a source of vitamin A, the farmers hot a ready market for it.
The sweet potato was in high demand among pregnant and breastfeeding women, and by hospitals and schools. However, within a year, the market was saturated, leaving vines to rot in the gardens.
But farmers in the adjacent Mweura area got into a fight with milk vendors and middlemen over poor pay.
Through a farmer exchange programme, a value-addition plan was conceived to create the new portagurt, and with the help of youth from the local polytechnic, farmers made simple processing machines and set up a factory.
“We also managed to get funding from a local church NGO to build a freezer, which has gone a long way in assisting us to produce in large quantities,” said Milka Muchira, a member of the Mweura farmers group.
The lengthy production chain for the special yoghurt has created employment for more than 200 people “with almost every unemployed person in this location now being guaranteed of pay at end month,” said Ms Muchira.
The farmers are also creating a new demand for the sweet potatoes.
Once the sweet potatoes are brought to the makeshift factory, they are washed, peeled and put in the oven for baking. Milk mixed with warm water is added and put on the fire until it reaches 90 degrees.
After adding the starter culture, which aids in fermentation, the mixture is incubated for between four and six hours and then put into the freezer for three hours. It is moved to the fridge where it is creamed, sugar and other flavours added before bottling and packaging.
The packaging is done in various quantities to make the product accessible to all consumers where the cheapest portagurt sells at Sh15 and the most expensive at goes for Sh120.
“In a day, we produce more than 1,000 litres and we feel that this is not enough, since we never cater for all our clients,” said Ms Muchira.
However, the rudimentary machinery and even limited storage space has stopped them from producing more.
“Moreover, it is not as easy as it sounds, because there are other factors that come to play like hygiene, which are now major challenges here. Milk is a sensitive commodity and a good medium for bacterial growth and we have lost a lot before we realised we were doing it wrongly or the way we were handling equipment wasn’t right,” said Daniel Muraguri, another farmer.
Currently, St Charles Lwanga Schools is the biggest client for the farmers’ group. In a day, the school consumes more than 200 litres.
The school is getting into a partnership with the farmers to train primary school children in portagurt making, in a bid to cultivate an entrepreneurial culture.
The enterprising spirit has seen the farmers approach financial institutions for credit as the business shows positive signs of growth.
On the cards is expanding the venture to neighbouring areas, the farmers said, adding the overproduction was a major challenge, exposing them to heavy losses.
Two micro finance institutions have come in with a proposal to assist the members in buying a bigger freezer and modern processing equipment.
An Australian NGO is also exploring with the farmers ways of improving the portagurt and at other value addition ventures in an area whose topography favours most crops.
The farms are under-used, based on the potential and the limited market have presented the farmers with a headache.
We want to see how best we can combine all the produce and make something of quality and highly priced, both for the local and international market,” said Mark Zwald, a programme officer with Truefarm Australia.