It is estimated that the potato value chain can create 3.3 million jobs a year for young people, a staggering statistic that can tangible lead to reducing youth unemployment and underemployment, now at 14.6 million.
Potato is the second most important food and cash crop after maize in Kenya and is therefore important as it offers a nutritious alternative to maize; Potato production contributes to food security through substantial employment and income, poverty eradication, and economic development.
Unlike maize, potatoes have a short growth cycle, maturing in about 100 days. They can be easily integrated into existing farming systems, especially during short rain periods. Despite this, the potato sector tends to perform below its potential because of poor production technology, small and declining farm sizes, and poor crop management practices (e.g. poor rotation practices that results in low yields and high prevalence of pests and disease).
The potato value chain involves around 2.7 million people, among them 800,000 smallholder farmers, and contributes over Ksh50 billion to the economy, according to GrowAfrica.
But low productivity levels of less than 10 tonnes per hectare – one-quarter of what is considered achievable – coupled with increasing demand for potato from urban consumers, means the value chain holds great potential if addressed systemically and in concert by multiple stakeholders.
The potato crop is grown mainly in cool, high-altitude areas with well-distributed rainfall. The most suitable elevation is between 1,500 meters and 2,500 meters above sea level. The main growing areas are found in the central, eastern, and Rift Valley regions. The central region produces more than 53 percent, while eastern and Rift Valley regions produce a combined total of 44 percent.
Priority improvements include productivity increases through better use of inputs and disease control; supportive government policies on a number of fronts including the streamlining of the certification process and the facilitation of production and distribution of high-quality ware and processing seed varieties; improvements in storage and marketing infrastructure and; adoption of potato marketing standard.
A 2014 report by USAID listed the value chains in potatoes to include seed producers, multipliers and traders, local market potato traders, agrovet stores, and fertilizer and chemical suppliers.
One of the key bottlenecks is in seed production. Approximately 96 percent of producers use uncertified seed: either potato retained from the previous harvest, potato sourced from neighbors, or potato purchased from local markets. A majority of potato producers also lack knowledge on seed selection and all this contributes to low yields of the crop.
The study asserted by this year Kenyans will be consuming an average of 41kgs per person and a total of 2,296,717 metric tonnes. It also projected that urban consumption will account for 54 percent, indicating higher consumption than rural areas. This is largely due to changing consumer habits.
There are also many areas that remain untapped, a recent conference dubbed Utafiti Sera National Conference on Youth Employment and Job Creation in Kenya by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) among other partners discussed. They include starch in potatoes and processed products including from pharmaceuticals, frozen potatoes among others.
As a young person interested in the potato value chain, the first stop should be at the National Potato Council (NPC). The council has all the information about the business including production areas, markets as well as seeds. For instance, Markies variety attracts royalty since it has been trademarked by Agrico East Africa. As a young person, you, therefore, are limited from planting it but can explore other varieties.
Secondly, NPC can provide linkages to other government institutions that would provide more details on what you need. For instance, if you want to be part of the seeds production, Kenya Seed Company becomes an important stop to make.
Thirdly, you need to map out the market both available and potential before venturing into the business. For instance, if you want to be involved in the transport business of moving potatoes from farms to market, you need to know which areas have high production, their production cycles and the market gaps.
Fourthly, you need to answer the capital question. How much capital do you have and can invest in the business? Which sources of financing can you tap into? For instance, if you are a lady, the Ministry of Agriculture is working with stakeholders like the African Development Bank to provide generous funding to women agri-preneurs. So you may want to learn more about them and be part of the opportunities that lay ahead.
Finally, it is important to know what role you want to play in the value chain and how much you may earn, all factors constant. The USAID study placed wholesalers highest, followed by brokers, then producers and finally retailers.
There you have it, do make an informed decision.