Over the years, farmers have been grappling with a shortage of clean potato seeds affecting production of the crop.
But this should be a thing of the past as seeds growers adopt new technologies, one which was showcased recently at a potato fair at the Wambugu Agriculture Training Centre in Nyeri.
The technology is known as rooted apical cutting, and is aimed at addressing the shortage of certified seeds and promoting the availability of clean seeds to farmers in all potato growing zones in the country.
Daniel Mbiri, a researcher with the International Potato Council (CIP), which organised the fair alongside Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), Kenya Agriculture Livestock Research Organisation, the National Potato Council and the County Government of Nyeri, said the technology involves production of potato seeds through stem cutting. This makes it easier to propagate the seedlings before transplanting.
Mbiri explained that the resultant cutting is similar to a nursery grown seedling except that it is grown through vegetative means and not from the seeds. “The cuttings are produced from tissue culture plantlets in a screen house and after rooting, they are planted in the fields,” he said, adding that is different from producing potatoes from mini-tubers.
The cuttings stay in a screen house for about two to three weeks for them to develop proper roots before transplanting.
Each cutting can produce up to 24 tubers which are then multiplied for two season before harvesting.
“The harvest is sold as seedlings making access to clean seeds to farmers in a very short period. More so, seed tubers produced from cuttings are not at risk of diseases even after planting for several seasons,” he said.
Though a farmer cannot propagate the seedlings at farm level, once they purchase the seedling going for Sh15, they can make a nursery and plant them for propagation.
One acre can produce over 20,000 clean seeds developed from the stem of a potato.
“This technology is eliminating diseases such as bacteria wilt and Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) among other viral ones,” he said.
He further noted that in potato growing zones, soils have been suffering from diseases which farmers are sometimes unable to treat.
“Farmers can solve this problem by adopting crop rotation but it is then hindered by the limitation in farm size,” he added.
Potato is the second most important food crop in Kenya and is grown by about 800,000 smallholder farmers.
High multiplication rate
The industry employs about three million people along the value chain and contributes over Sh50 billion to the country’s economy annually.
The country currently produces less than 10 tonnes per hectare compared to 40 tonnes which is achievable under recommended agronomic practices.
“The transformation process calls for farmers to adopt new ways of doing business which include use of certified seeds, disease and pest control and improved storage and marketing,” said Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri during the event.
Mbiri further added that production of cuttings embraces bio-technology and requires small land holdings thus making it attractive to farmers.
Other than being free of diseases, another advantage of potato cuttings is that they are economical.
With 1,000 cuttings at a cost of Sh15,000, a seed multiplier is projected to produce 76 50kg bags of seed potato after two seasons of multiplication.
“The rapid and high rate of multiplication will significantly contribute to reducing seed potato shortages,” explained Mbiri.
However, potato cuttings cannot do well in dry weather as they require to be well-watered until they are well-established.
They are supposed to be watered at least twice a day especially after planting and gradually once per day as the crop becomes established in the soil.
“Crop will be lost significantly if the crop is not well established in the soil,” said Mbiri.
During the fair, farmers were also trained on harvesting and how to manage the potato seed obtained from cuttings.
As the crop matures, a farmer is to check for the size of the tuber which is mostly egg-shaped and dehaulm them by cutting down all above ground, which separates them from the tubers. “A farmer should ensure they remove all plant matter from the field because leaving it lying on the field could bring diseases to the tubers,” he said.