POTATO production in Zimbabwe is nose-diving, with farmers citing lack of financial support from government, drought and the attendant economic challenges.
Government declared potatoes as a strategic food security crop in 2012, but not much was invested into production of the crop.
Farmers who spoke to Standardbusiness last week said there was need for government to invest in potato production as well as in knowledge.
"Of late, there has been a decline in potato production. This is due to the economic environment where there is very little disposable income and consumers are going for cheaper options. Command Agriculture does not include potatoes. This is to the potato industry's disadvantage," Zimbabwe Seed Potatoes Companies Associations (Zspca) chairman Peter Steyl said.
"Firstly, farmers are picking crops that are funded. Secondly, command maize is being subsidised. It is sold to GMB [Grain Marketing Board] by the farmer at $4 000 per tonne and sold to the millers at $2 000 per tonne, a 50% subsidy. We cannot compete with this degree of subsidy."
After government declared potato a strategic food security crop in 2012, production surged partly because seed companies were able to import high yielding seed from South Africa and Europe, Steyl said.
This enabled the farmer to be able to sell his crop at lower prices and still make a very good return and enabling those that previously could not afford potatoes to now afford them and in turn creating a much bigger market.
Government, however, later banned seed imports, encouraging farmers to purchase and plant locally produced seed.
"Most of these local varieties were very old and not high yielding, coupled with this seed production was inadequate. This caused a shortage of potatoes in the market ensuring the prices were good. This resulted in potatoes being unaffordable to a large segment of the population," Zspca boss said.
Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) reports indicate that national average yields grew from about 15mt per ha in 2010 to about 24.7mt by 2017.
Steyl said getting fresh seed was difficult as the seed industry had not been able to keep up with the table potato production. He said it was imperative that the country develop its local seed multiplication programme and improve the seed quality through scientific testing.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers' Union vice-president Maiwepi Jiti said after government declared the crop as strategic, research was half done where sack potato production in the backyard was done but failed.
He said extension service lacked because extension officers were not versed in potato production, hence most farmers did not know how to produce them.
"There is need to invest in knowledge. Potatoes like any other crop need water, hence irrigation investment because the crop cannot be rain-fed. A farmer cannot grow potatoes without irrigation. Most irrigation facilities are dilapidated and -- or vandalised," he said.
"There is need for doing away with the overhead irrigation system which wastes the scarce resource of water considering the persistent dry spells we are currently experiencing coupled with global warming."
Jiti said potato production was quite expensive considering the amount of fertilisers, cost of seed and chemicals required in order to maximise on yield. For example, you need 20 by 50kg bags of compound fertiliser to grow one hectare of potatoes.
Input costs, farmers say, are approximately US$10 000 per ha for good commercial growers.
Another blow to farmers, Jiti said, was theft of both aluminium pipes and the potatoes themselves.
"Thieving is very rampant and discourages farmers from growing potatoes even though it's now catching up on other crops like maize, tobacco and so on. This is a big problem if trespassing laws are not implemented and maintenance of boundaries is not enforced by way of fencing," he said.
"Service providers are also a hindering factor. There is need for electricity to power irrigation systems, but we go for up to 18 hours per day with no electricity."
Farmers said since potatoes could be produced all year round, they could play a major role in food security and bring in forex through exports.
"We therefore believe government should be giving the potato farmers assistance. Now that we are approaching the declines for planting grain crops, potatoes are a very good option and can play a significant role in food security. Producing homegrown food keeps people employed and saves foreign currency," Steyl said.
He said potatoes could be exported to countries in Europe and the Middle East, thereby bringing in foreign currency into the country.
Land, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement deputy minister Vangelis Haritatos said a number of measures were implemented by government in the past 10 years to boost potato production.
These include a ban on table potato imports since 2010 to protect the local potato farmers from unfair competition with potatoes from South Africa which were flooding the local market; registration of new seed houses and new potato varieties, among other interventions.
In addition, he said, government had so far registered about 23 high yielding potato varieties over the past seven years, giving farmers a wide choice for planting materials.
Among these new varieties are specialised ones for the processing industry being used for crisping and chipping, he said.
Haritatos said as a direct impact of government policies and the response by farmers and the private sector, national potato production trends had been increasing exponentially from the year 2010 when the country produced a total of 52 000mt up to 475 000mt produced in 2017.
"This growth was supported by a good supply of high-quality certified seed. Our ministry allowed supervised importation of certified potato seed by seed houses to complement local seed production. This attracted foreign breeders who started to engage local seed houses to register their varieties with Seed Services Institute (SSI)," he said.
"As production continues to increase in the absence of significant exports for potatoes, it reflects continual growth in local consumption of potatoes. Consumption is now estimated at around 33kg per person per year.
In 2000, the annual consumption of potatoes per person was 2kg while in 2010 it increased to 4kg per person and in 2017 it was 33kg per person.
Haritatos, however, admitted that from 2017 to date, potato production had decreased due to a number of factors affecting all other value chains in the economy such as power outages, shortage of foreign currency and climate change.
"Potato farmers are now focusing on export markets to generate foreign currency needed for the procurement of major inputs for them to remain viable," he said.
He said SSI was already working on adopting international best practices for seed quality control procedures by using virus testing and bacterial wilt testing.