The death of tobacco farming in Kuria-land, Migori County, has undoubtedly ushered in a new dawn of accelerated Sweet potato farming among the people in the area.
Local farmers are fast adapting to growing sweet potatoes as a crucial alternative cash crop in a region that previously depended on the tobacco leaf as the sole money-minting crop since independence.
Tobacco farming in Kuria and to an extent, Migori County, in general, started stumbling many years back after the local leadership put up spirited campaigns against the crop on grounds that it posed serious health perils to the people and earned few coins to the farmers in terms of income.
In 2015 many farmers in the larger Migori County were left counting losses after Alliance One Tobacco Kenya, which had more than 52 percent of contracted farmers in the region, stopped operations.
The firm moved to other African countries citing poor leaf quality in Kenya. The exit left more than 10,000 farmers in Migori County stranded with their produce.
What followed in 2016 was massive abandonment of the crop for alternative crops. Sweet potatoes immediately became a darling crop to many farmers in Kuria land due to the favorable climatic condition and the type of soil available in the region.
From Nyankore to Nyanchaboto Mabera, Masaba and to Kwiriba in Ntimaru within the Kuria land, the rate at which farmers are engaging in sweet potato production is impressive and signalling a positive transformation mark in the region’s agricultural sector.
According to statistics from the offices of the County Agriculture Department, more than 85 percent of farmers within Kuria West and Kuria East sub-Counties are growing the crop that has also found a ready market locally and outside the area.
“We have many farmers who have abandoned growing tobacco, maize and sugarcane and turned to growing sweet potato crop which has proved to be more reliable in earning farmers’ good income,” says Mr. Valentine Ogongo, the County Executive Committee (CEC) member for Agriculture.
The crop got a major boost last year after the European Union together with Migori County Government decided to go into a business venture by constructing a Sweet Potato processing plant at Geton’ganya in Kuria West to do value addition on the crop.
Kuria East MP Maisori Kitayama believes the factory that is yet to start operations will go a long way in creating more wealth to the local farmers and provide employment to the locals.
“It is unbelievable that today we can witness convoys of lorries collecting and ferrying bags of Sweet potatoes from the area to markets in Nairobi and in far-flung places of the country,” said Mr. Chacha Mwita who became one of the biggest producers of Sweet potato crop in the area after switching from tobacco and maize farming.
‘I was compelled to go into large scale Sweet potato farming after abandoning tobacco growing in the wake of poor prices and lack of market. The only alternative I got was to switch to growing sweet potatoes so that I could continue providing for my family,” he told KNA during an interview with him recently.
Mama Silvia Boke, a resident of Nyanchabo village says she has a total of 15 acres of land, out of which ten of them are set aside for large-scale sweet potato crop growing.
Last year alone, she managed to harvest and sell a Kshs 200, 000 consignment of the crop to buyers from Nairobi as well as to local consumers.
Although the crop has significantly raised the profile of agriculture in the area, it has also carried with it a baggage of challenges that the farmers are struggling to overcome in order to make a good profit out of growing it.
“We are faced with a big problem of getting quality seeds in order to produce a better crop,” said Mr Aloyce Nyamohanga, adding that they were also dealing with brokers who are always out to benefit at the expense of the hard-working farmer.
The brokers would always find good market prices from buyers in Nairobi and elsewhere but come down to Kuria to sweet-talk farmers to accept very low prices for their produce.
“Because Sweet potato is a perishable crop, a farmer would be forced to strike a low-priced deal with a buyer for fear of losing in the absence of a ready market. This is how the middlemen have always created a false narrative about lack of a ready market to benefit at the expense of a farmer’s sweat,” explained Nyamohanga.
The farmers also request the county leadership to improve accessibility to their farms by improving the road network to ease transportation of their produce to markets.
Above all, the farmers want both the national and county governments to assist them access cheap loans from financial institutions in order to allow them to expand the acreage of the crop to earn more income.