Potato farmers in five counties can now access certified planting material after a Dutch-based horticultural firm introduced new technology to mass produce high yielding and disease resistant seed varieties in Nakuru.
Agrico East Africa which sits on a 1,300-acre farm at Olrongai within Rongai Sub-County has already received certification from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) to embark on multiplication of seeds towards meeting the increasing demand among local growers estimated at over 133 metric tonnes monthly.
“Currently, we are producing 40 tonnes of seeds per 20 hectares. There is a severe shortage of certified potato seed variety in the country, a situation that leads to poor yields and crop losses.
At the moment, we are planting to multiply the seeds for the short rainy period of November and December. We expect the seeds to be ready for harvesting by end of July then we give them one month dormancy period so that by September they will be ready for farmers,” said Kaituyu Sungura, Agrico East Africa agronomist.
The three potato varieties multiplied here are Destiny, Markies and Manitou. Apart from the three varieties, the government has approved 13 varieties for importation from Netherlands.
The agronomist assures that production rates for all the varieties are high with proper farm practices.
Sungura explains that Destiny is suitable for crisps and has high dry matter content and shallow eyes. It also has high resistance of Y virus and golden nematode. On the other hand, Markies is late maturing (matures after 100 days) with dry matter content and is good for French fries and crisps. It is resistant to blight and Y virus.
Manitou, a variety that matures after 90 days, has been bred to resist early blight.
“There is also another variety called Rudolph which is preferred by farmers in low rainfall areas because it does not need much rainfall as it is heat tolerant. With good agronomical practices which include soil testing and analysis, the right chemical usage and fertilizer among others, a farmer can be sure of harvesting 12-16 tonnes per acre in 90-100 days maturity period if they plant varieties that are certified to curb losses,” said Sungura.
Here, everything is done with precision, from seed selection to planting and harvesting to guarantee quality potato yield. To meet international standards, the seed potatoes are inspected by KEPHIS from planting, growing and storage before distribution to farmers.
“KEPHIS officers visit the farm and inspect the crop and observe practices applied before approval,” he explains.
Agrico East Africa has also set up similar operations in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Sungura said the firm started potato multiplication after background surveys established that most Kenyan farmers recycle harvested produce that is not certified.
Besides Nakuru County, the farm also sells its seed potato mainly in Meru, Nyandarua and Kirinyaga, which are leading potato producers.
The company also offers production training and advice for free to farmers so long as they present their soil sample analysis.
“Recycled potato seed possess clones of the same generation and are low yielding and susceptible to diseases. Here we ensure that seed potato comes with different characters for instance, rate of yields are higher because of hybridization.
We import at least 200 to 300 tonnes of potato for multiplication annually of which 4 tonnes are planted per acre for multiplication,” explained the agronomist.
Sungura said the farm has adopted intensive mechanization to cut down on human and animal traffic by setting the farm as a quarantine seed multiplication area and this way, there are no incidences of getting germs that contaminate seeds.
Further, mechanisation makes work easier for large scale multiplication within stipulated timelines.
For instance, a single machine cultivates, prepares ridges and incorporates fertiliser in the soil, he points out.
“We drastically cut on costs and improve on efficiency through mechanisation. When one tractor is used for different applications, costs of production are reduced which translates to affordable and high quality seed varieties for our potato farmer. Movement of harvested seeds is also done by tractors” explains the agronomist.
The first step in potato seed production he explains is chiseling followed by disc harrowing.
Fertilisation spreader is later done following advice of soil analysts to know the amount of fertilizer to apply during production.
Hook tine cultivator mounted with a ridge machine incorporates fertilizer and nutrients in the soil and creates ridges behind.
A combine cultivator is later used to cultivate and prepare ridges ready for planting. Spacing of seed variety is done at 22 by 75cms interval and 6-inch depth.
A planter is used to place potato seeds inside the ridges and spray them with nematicides, before it is covered with soil.
When the seed germinates after ten days, weeding is done by a ranger machine that covers weeds including a section of newly germinated potatoes.
After germination, preventive fungicide against late blight disease is applied (four leaves stage) and in areas with cut worms, pyrethroid chemical spray is applied in the evening.
Later, alternation between preventive and curative chemical application is done according to weather variability.
During rains, spraying is done after five days whereas sunny weather determines seven days.
A sizing square is used to determine the size of potato seeds before harvesting and sorting where chaff and damaged tubers are removed.
“At the storage facility temperatures are regulated at 4 degrees Celsius. Later the temperatures are adjusted gradually up to 10 degrees Celsius to break dormancy of the seed. Regulation depends on the variety, for instance Markies and Manitou take two months while Destiny one and a half months,” explains Mr Sungura.
The final stage is weighing and packaging.
For clean seeds free from pests and diseases, any visitor seeking entry at the farm must disinfect their feet before entry to the farm and vehicles drive through a disinfectant trough.
Wheat is rotated with potato. The agronomist explains that crop rotation helps curb pests and diseases, and maintains good soil structure because potatoes are tubers while wheat is a root system crop.
The practice also improves soil structure and additional organic matter.