Potatoes are the second most important crop after maize, employing about 2.5 million people across the entire production chain. However, low production of the crop has been blamed on poor seed.
Kenya lacks quality potato seeds which makes farmers use seeds from previous harvests, which leads to accumulation of pests and diseases.
Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service managing director Dr James Onsando says potatoes are number two to maize in terms of food production yet there is no available potato certified seed.
"This means that farmers use previous produce instead of seed potato and because of this, there has been an accumulation of pests and diseases which have reduced the yields," he says.
Alphonce Kirika has been growing potatoes for five years. "I preserve the best after harvest and this is what I plant. Diseases are however a big challenge," says Kirika.
Farmers use the traditional method of borrowing seeds from neighbours and relatives year on and some have never bought potato seed.
Navin Shah, managing director, Deepa Industry, which processes potatoes into chips and other snacks, says during the rainy season, the quality of potato goes down. "If Kenya farmers could get a new variety that is of good quality, we would be more than happy to buy from them," he says.
According to the National Potato Council of Kenya, there are 800,000 potato growers in the country, planting an estimated 158,000 hectares. Meru, Limuru, Nyandarua, Nyahururu, Kericho are identified as the leading potato growing areas.
However, despite the high potential to contribute to employment creation and poverty alleviation, the potato industry also faces a challenge in production, processing and marketing with the latter being poorly structured that farmers have not been able to earn much unlike other actors in the value chain.
Agriculture PS Romano Kiome says so far Kenya has not resolved the seed supply problem in the potato industry which is one of the major challenges facing farmers.
"Kenyans have attachment to potatoes but the industry is not moving to where it is supposed to hence the need for a seed system. We are working in partnership with the Netherlands on a project that will start with selected seed potatoes and gradually extend to the rest of the production chain," the PS said.
Hans Wolff, agricultural counsellor, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation in the Netherlands, says agriculture is declining in Kenya due to rural-urban migration.
In addition, land is dwindling and becoming smaller every year and production is going down hence the need for good seeds and training farmers to do better potato farming.
"For long we have been looking at sectors where we could partner and contribute to food security in Kenya and we thought that there is a gap in potato farming. The state of affairs in potato growing in Kenya is wanting and really poor which can be attributed to the fact that Kenyan farmers are multiplying potato seeds from previous harvests. We hope the Kenya-Dutch project will further contribute to high nutrition and economic stability in the country," Wolff says.
Onsando says the government has however been looking for an alternative certified potato variety from the Netherlands given that it has only been able to produce a capacity of one per cent potato seed to farmers.
He explains, "Netherlands controls 70 percent of the world potato trade as they have a certified potato unit and it is also in Netherlands that countries producing the most potatoes in the world according to FAO statistics receive their seeds from.
For instance, production in South Africa, Egypt and Brazil is gradually going up. Countries that do not source their seeds from Netherlands get about nine tonnes a year while those that do get a yield of 19 tonnes per year. This is a clear indication that seeds from Netherlands are high yielding and promising."
Many countries like Egypt, Morocco and Sudan have benefited from this project and Kenya is expected to benefit from this bilateral agreement with the government of Netherlands to produce new varieties of potatoes and boost potato growing in Kenya.
The project is timely in Kenya especially now when the country is working towards diversification of food production and food security is high on the agenda.