EXPLOITING IRRIGATION TO IMPROVE KENYA’S POTATO FARMING
Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is the world’s fourth leading food crop (Liu, et al., 2020) with some 360 million tonnes produced annually (FAO, 2021), and third most consumed food after rice and wheat (CIP, 2020). In Kenya, potato ranks second to maize as a food and economic crop with 2-3 million tonnes produced against a potential of 8-10 million tonnes annually (NPCK, 2022). It is, therefore, a strategic staple crop in the food-deficit Kenya. The country’s potato production system is dominated by small-scale growers under rain-fed system and is carried out in regions of 1,200-3,000 metres above sea level with suitable soils and ample rainfall.
The socioeconomic value of potato in Kenya is significant with nearly 800,000 farmers producing 2.7 million tonnes contributing to more than KSh50 billion to the economy annually through the value chain and export (TrendEconomy, 2021). For instance, in 2020, Kenya exported KSh516.04 million potatoes, making it the 47th largest exporter of the crop in the world.
Potato farming in Kenya faces a major challenge due to lack of adequate quality seeds. Only 7,000-tonne clean seeds are produced against an annual demand of 30,000 tonnes (Potato supply chain news, 2021). In addition, the predominantly rain-fed production systems explain the low yield and quality of tubers of 7-10t/ha compared to 17t/ha realised globally.
Rapid population increase in potato-growing regions have increased land subdivision, hence the reducing yields. Also, emerging economic trends are increasing consumption of particular varieties of potato. Consequently, Kenya loses foreign exchange through imports to fill the demand deficit. In fact, local high-end fast-food consumers rely entirely on fresh/chilled potato imports from as far as Egypt and South Africa. The country’s foreseeable future is characterized by fluctuating (if not declining) annual productivity, which undermines the sustainable production capacity of the country. This calls for adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies and/or production systems to realise further gains in production of this vital crop in Kenya.
Kenyan farmers have responded to these challenges by recycling seeds which are, however, associated with reduced yields. Crop diversification, too, is practised to help manage weeds, pests and diseases. Additionally, farmers have exploited the rapidly expanding agrochemical industry to manage pest and disease problems. Further, the market is getting segmented and potato products are getting differentiated through value addition. However, there still persist challenges of declining available land in favourable climates and fluctuating production as well as productivity associated with climate change.
The solution to the declining productivity of Kenya’s potato industry lies in adoption of climate resilience-enhancing strategies. These include intensive potato cropping systems, development of new crop varieties and soil moisture management in drier climates. The increasing climate variability and the prevalent bimodal rainfall patterns make soil moisture management the most viable option. This can be achieved easily through adoption of irrigation.
The rapidly expanding irrigation in Kenya offers opportunity to improve potato productivity, improve tuber yield and quality, and ensure supply of good quality seeds. Irrigation positively affects the entire potato value chain, and thus holds the key to reversing the current trends and rejuvenating the country’s potato industry. Irrigation is a multi-pronged enabler in the potato value chain with great potential in several ways: Research has shown that Kenya’s commercial varieties adapt well to irrigation and give high yields of good market value, even in hot climates.
In fact, the World Potato Council has identified regions with dry climate, high solar radiation and irrigation water as having a comparative advantage for potato production. Further, tuber size uniformity, which are key quality parameters in potato marketing are assured in irrigated systems more than in rain-fed production systems. Irrigation, therefore, has the potential for helping bridge the seed deficit and thus save the potato industry the time and money spent on outsourcing quality seeds. The fact that Kenya’s irrigation development is characterized by rapid expansion in hot and dry climates, therefore, offers relief and provides a great opportunity for the potato industry to take a transformative trajectory of production that will in turn stimulate large-scale processing for local and export markets.
The National Irrigation Authority is a strategic partner in Kenya’s potato farming. The rapidly expanding irrigation sub-sector in Kenya creates new frontiers for the industry to exploit irrigated potato production. Irrigated seed production in these areas is particularly a potential low-hanging fruit for the industry.