The availability of certified seed potato in Kenya is improving, thanks to efforts being made by National Potato Council of Kenya & KEPHIS.
Potato is the world’s fourth most important food crop after wheat, maize and rice. It is the second most important crop in Kenya after maize. Globally, potato is grown successfully in tropical and subtropical climates, with about 100 out of 140 potato growing countries being located within the tropics and sub-tropical regions.
Potato is expected to play a pivotal role in ameliorating food shortage, thus relieving the pressure of increasing cereal prices on the low income populations and contributing significantly to food security. Due to its importance, the government has included potato under the food security pillar of the ‘Big Four’ development agenda.
Potato offers a suitable alternative to maize, whose production is challenged by a myriad of constraints ranging from changing weather patterns, reduction in land holdings, the devastation caused by the fall army worm and the maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND).
Despite its importance as a food and industrial crop, potato production in Kenya has remained low at only 7 tons per hectare against a potential of 40 tons per hectare. This is because production is constrained by several factors including shortage of certified seed potato, poor agronomic practices, pests and diseases.
In addition, potato farming is largely done by subsistence farmers with limited financial resources to access and use agricultural inputs to exploit potential of the modern varieties.
Low supply of certified seed potato
Availability of certified seed potato is low at less than 4% and farmers resort to uncertified planting materials. This has resulted in proliferation of diseases, mainly bacterial wilt, viral diseases and nematodes , which has further compounded the problem.
Over the last 5 years, the government has put in place measures to increase availability of certified seed potato. This includes the scheme aimed at increasing production through variety evaluation and release. This is done by KEPHIS, in collaboration with local and international potato breeders.
In the recent past, KEPHIS has made considerable progress in availing high yielding, market oriented varieties that farmers can take advantage to satisfy market requirements. New varieties of potato are approved for commercialization only after undergoing tests related to their adaptability and suitability for cultivation under the growing conditions in Kenya.
The process of testing new varieties is guided by the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act (Cap 326) of the laws of Kenya. The local and international breeders have done tremendous work in developing high-yielding and market responsive varieties that are currently being multiplied.
Testing of potato varieties (In Meru, Nyandarua, Narok, Uasin Gishu & Trans Nzoia)
The technical evaluation for agronomic performance is done using two approaches; Conventional NPT and Intensive NPT. The first one involves rain-fed, conventional agronomic practices while the Intensive NPT requires the use of high input management under irrigation with intensive control of pests and diseases.
The latter targets varieties for farmers with mechanized systems. Yields of over 60 tons per hectare have been achieved under this system as compared to 40 tons/ha under conventional system. NPT testing is undertaken at 10 sites, representing potato-growing areas of Kenya.
Six sites are for conventional, while 4 are for intensive NPT. Conventional NPT sites include Timau and Kibirichia (Meru), Kamae (Nyandarua), Narok, Burnt Forest (Uasin Gishu) and Cherangany (Trans Nzoia). On the other hand, Intensive NPT sites include Mau Narok and Molo (Nakuru), Oljororok (Nyandarua) and Timau.
Significant progress has been made since 2012 after the signing of MOU with The Netherlands that has seen evaluation and release of many potato varieties. A total of 61 potato varieties have been officially released in Kenya. These include varieties developed by Kenyan breeders, Netherlands and Scotland. Kenya has also signed an MOU on importation of potato tubers from France and Scotland and additional potato varieties are expected from these countries.
These developments have made it possible for Kenyan potato farmers to have a substantial number of varieties to choose from in response to the market demand. The varieties released are suitable for processing as well as table use. Evaluation of more varieties sourced locally and internationally is in progress.
Certified seed potato multiplication
Official release of varieties has set the stage for their multiplication, that leads to consistent supply of certified seed potato. KEPHIS has put in place measures to ensure that farmers get high quality and disease-free seeds of these varieties.
Traditionally, seed potato production in Kenya has been undertaken by public institutions. However, recent developments have seen the entry of private seed producers.
Currently, there are 15 registered seed companies dealing with certified seed potato in the country. These include ADC, KALRO Seed Unit, Kisima Farm, Suera Ltd, Charvi Ltd, Sungus Enterprises, Gene Biotech, East Africa Seed Co, Syngenta (EA) Ltd, Agrico (EA) Ltd, Kevian, Seeds 2B, GTIL (Minitubers and Apical Cuttings), Stokman Rozen(Apical Cuttings) and Sigen Hortipruce. All seed potato registered by these companies are inspected and certified by KEPHIS.
Some initiatives in certified seed potato production
Initially, seed potato multiplication was undertaken only by the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), who would obtain breeder’s seed from KARI (now KALRO) Tigoni.
However, in recent times players from the private sector have invested in seed multiplication. These players produce seed directly and through out-growers. The following are some of the initiatives:
1. Support for small-scale certified seed potato growers.
From 2005 to 2008, KEPHIS facilitated a special arrangement where KARI (now KALRO) Seed Unit supported farmers to use its license in having their seed crops certified in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries (MOALF). Similar arrangements have been made with other registered seed companies.
These special arrangements have been very instrumental in supporting small scale growers, who may not afford to register seed companies and therefore make a contribution in increasing availability of certified seed potato as well as availing seed at close proximity to the farmers.
2. Importation of Certified Seed Potato
The first importation of potato tubers from the Netherlands was done in 2012.This followed the signing of a bilateral agreement between Kenya and the Netherlands on the importation of certified seed potato.
So far, close to 1,500 tons of seed potato have been imported. The seed is multiplied locally before distribution to farmers to assure that they are free from pests and diseases in the first growing season. This has helped increase the volumes of seed potato available to the farming community.
It has also resulted in availability of potato varieties for diverse use such as processing (chips and crisps) and for table use. Other agreements have been signed with France and Scotland; importation of certified seed potato from these countries will happen in the near future.
3. Mini-tubers and Apical Cuttings
Use of mini-tubers has been employed to produce disease-free starter planting material for production of basic seed. Recent research has demonstrated that apical cuttings can be used as a source of disease free planting materials.
Plants obtained from tissue culture are used to obtain rooted cuttings, which are hardened and planted directly. This is a quick method of obtaining large amounts of planting materials within a short time. KEPHIS has already developed seed certification protocols for mini-tubers and apical cuttings. The method can also be very useful in increasing the availability of potato basic seeds.
4. True Potato Seed (TPS)
True Potato Seed (TPS) is a lower risk material than seed tubers with regard to spread of diseases. However, TPS has the challenge of varietal uniformity. Recent research has resulted in varieties with considerable uniformity and these holds a promise in contributing towards increased seed potato production.
5. ‘Cluster farmer’ seed production
This model involves groups of farmers in a particular locality growing seed that are inspected at the same time. This is advantageous as it helps reduce the costs of inspection since many farmers are visited at the same time. This model also makes training easy and cost friendly. Furthermore, farmers organized in groups find it relatively easier to obtain funding compared to individual farmers.
In some cases, such farmers are organized in co-operative societies. The model has been very successful in production of seeds of pulses and holds much promise in increasing certified seed potato production.
By Dr. Esther Kimani, Managing Director, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS).