The vast plains of Laikipia County in Kenya are home to two kinds of potato farmers; those that can access the market directly, and those that must go through dealers commonly referred to as ‘middlemen’. This is because, transporting this commodity to the market place often attracts an extra burden of costs, one that many smallholder farmers are unable to bear.

While one would imagine that the farmers with direct access to customers have an advantage, this is not in fact the reality. Many of them rely on the unpredictable flow of potential customers by the sides of major roads connecting the county and other major towns. They target motorists on the roads negotiating for best prices whenever a car slows down and stops. It’s a very informal way of doing business with little consistency or assurity.

The remaining farmers, who are the majority, rely on middlemen who have the capital  to easily meet farmers’ quick cash requirement. Unfortunately, these middlemen often squeeze the prices of the potato to such a low level that whilst they are easing the commodity market burden, farmers are left with little to no profit for their potatoes. 

This exploitive situation is replicated across the country in the potato growing areas and it’s making potato farming increasingly unattractive and unsustainable for small holder farmers.

Potato is the second most important food crop in Kenya, after maize, and it attracts a regular demand across the country all year round.  More than 800,000 smallholder farmers are involved in its cultivation, yielding 2.9 million metric tonnes valued at an estimated Ksh. 50 billion from 158,000 hectares of land annually. The subsector also benefits an additional 3 million people indirectly.

But for smallholder farmers who produce the crop, they suffer the brunt of the exploitative market situation for the money earned is incommensurate to the efforts involved in potato growing.

The losses experienced are mainly a consequence of market dominating middlemen, who seek to buy large quantities of farm produce at the lowest cost possible. Consequently, and because of poor farmgate sales, the price of potatoes is largely determined and set by the middlemen, with the product being sold by extended bagful  instead of weight.  

Without the implementation of laws determining the size of the bags in which potatoes are sold, over time, traders have devised ways of extending the size of sacks to pack more produce, while maintaining the cost per bag at original price.  

While the law is clear on the penalty for such actions with The Potato Produce and Marketing Act  2014 prescribing imprisonment for a period not exceeding  three years or a fine not exceeding five million shillings for individuals who contravene the provisions of subsections 5(2), 9(1), 11, 14(1), and 15 (1)(2) and those who  contravene  7(1), 8(1), 9(1), 10 (1)(b), 13(1), the challenge in curbing the practice of trading using extended bags remains.

Currently, there is light shining on the potato sector in form of the newly enacted Crops (Irish Potato) Regulation, that was gazetted in early April, 2019. The regulation will require farmers and dealers to pack Irish Potatoes into a maximum weight of 50kg and sell by kilo.  Once implemented, the regulation will bring a reprieve to the farmers who previously would sell their produce to traders in bags that weighed up to  120kg at the cost of Kshs. 1,500 translating to a meagre Kshs. 12.5 per kilo. In fact, the new regulation will save farmers up to 50 per cent of their returns which are currently lost due to poor packaging.

Farmers are excited about the regulations but equally concerned. “We are really pleased with the new regulations released by the Ministry of Agriculture, however our fear is, will the regulations be enforced”? laments David Kariuki, one of the potato farmers based in Nyahururu.

To enhance the process of its implementation, The Agriculture Council of Kenya (AgCK) with support from AGRA is partnering with Country Governments of some of the potato growing counties including Nakuru, Nyandarua, Elgeyo Marakwet, Meru, Narok and Bungoma. Through this collaboration, the organisations   have designed a two year intervention aimed at Strengthening the Enabling Environment for the Transformation of Potato Value Chain – SEETPVC. 

The intervention seeks to ensure that requisite implementation mechanisms for the Irish potato regulation, 2019 are put in place by the county authorities who are required to implement the regulations. Among key actions include: sensitization of all actors along the Irish potato value chain; formation of a multi-departmental and formation of a multi stakeholder task unit to spearhead the implementation of the regulations with a secretariat at the department of agriculture.

Implementation suport will also include alignment of county level regulations to anchor the potato regulations and; build the capacity of the different actors to comply and  enforce the regulations. So far, the council has  facilitated development of implementation action plans and road map as well as technical manuals to guide implementation of the regulations.

It is anticipated that, the intervention will result in buy in and adoption of the regulations by the county authorities. Through this, the counties will be able to put in place implementation mechanisms including amendment of any county level regulation that conflict with the regulations, allocation of finances towards implementation of the regulations and documentation of the process towards informing the approach in implementation of other upcoming agriculture sector regulations and effective policy implementation generally.

To realize this, political goodwill is key as well as the need for harmonized and coordinated implementation across all counties. While the regulations seek to create an enabling environment for potato sector development, it should also be clear that other interventions are also important so as to holistically address the challenges farmers are facing including access to certified seed, quality inputs, finance as well as extension services among others.

The implementation of the regulation will further enable the farmers to benefit through their growers associations. To this end, farmers will  be able to determine the price of their produce based on production costs and profit margins. The growers associations will also provide an avenue for farmers to access other services including finances, extension as well as bulk purchase of inputs, thus reducing cost of production significantly.

In addition, there will be an establishment of collection centres; which will serve as the designate point of potato sale and purchase in addition to other designated markets. The collection points will enable farmers to grade, sort and package their potato ready for sale. It will be the key point for value addition. This will go a long way to soothe the pain as described by Paul Wafula a trader at Bungoma Chwele market who notes that ‘’If farmers could consolidate their produce reducing our cost of produce aggregation and surety of quality, we would fetch better prices’’

There is plenty to be done for best results to be achieved. But the enactment of the Irish Potato Regulation and the complimentary interventions for its implementation is already a good show in the race towards alleviating the hurdles faced in marketing potatoes.

Through their CEO, Mercy Mburu, AgCK is urging  Irish potato sub-sector stakeholders to work together. “We must leverage on each other’s strengths towards sustaining the momentum for a regulated potato sub-sector. This will expedite implementation and retain the confidence that the public has in the stakeholders and the sector.”  Mercy emphasises.