Somewhere in Nyandarua County, Kenya, a potato revolution is taking place – well at one of the least expected places. The change involves the production of quality potato seeds and it is happening at the NYS Tumaini farm.
The farm, which is the second largest potato production unit in East Africa, is using aeroponics technology to grow seeds.
The technology involves growing plants in the air or misty environment in an enclosed chamber in a production that lowers cost.
“We are employing this technology for mass production of certified potato seeds to enhance food security,” says Kennedy Nyakang’o, the officer in-charge.
Potatoes are Kenya’s second staple after maize but their production does not meet demand. One of the causes of low production is poor quality seeds, with most farmers recycling planting materials.
The National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) puts seed demand at 100,000 tonnes annually, but the country only produces 5,000 tonnes.
At the NYS facility, the seeds are propagated in three greenhouses under artificial and controlled conditions.
Propagation is done inside special boxes lined with insect-proof mesh to stop entry of disease vectors.
Nyakong’o informs Mkulima Young that they produce seeds of two potato varieties namely Shangi and Dutch Robjin. NYS Tumaini acquires the tissue culture material from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation or Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis).
The special boxes are wrapped with white cellophane and black polythene to ‘psyche’ the plants to start forming tubers.
“The black polythene is to prevent exposure to light so that they do not wither while the cellophane aid in photosynthesis,” adds Nyakang’o.
The tubers are suspended in the air and are sprayed with water and a solution of nutrients. They are also sprayed against early and late blight, aphids and wet flies that transmit viral diseases.
From the greenhouses, the mini-tubers go through more three stages of multiplication before they are sold to farmers.
“Two weeks after removal of the plantlets from the special trays, they are sprayed with water and after the third week, more nutrients are applied,” Nyakang’o says, adding that they then harden the plants for at least one month.
The plants start producing mini-tubers after 30-45 days after planting them inside the greenhouses.
The potatoes are harvested every two-and-half months with a single plantlet producing 60-70 mini-tubers per season.
The farm has started distributing clean seeds to farmers in an initiative that is set to mitigate spread of diseases such as bacterial wilt, blackleg and potato cyst nematodes and enhance farmers’ yields.
Any crop producing tubers such as sweet potatoes and cassava can be grown using the aeroponics technology.
A single mini-tuber sells at Sh15 while a 50kg bags at Sh5,000. “Our production system is 100 per cent safe and its helps the environment by conserving water and reducing the amount of human labour,” says Nyakango.
Kephis, which is giving technical support to the farm, notes that farmers need to be trained on chemical handling and safety and phytosanitary standards for higher yields
Kenya is banking on this technology to boost potato production, which stands at, between at 2-3 million metric tonnes annually, according to NPCK.