How Farmers Helping Farmers is working to improve potato production in Kenya

Report to Farmers Helping Farmers about my trip to Kenya in January and February of 2020 working with Kenyan potato farmers.

By Peter Townshend

“How Great Thou Art” was playing in the background as we sat in the shade of the house talking to a small group of people as we waited for the rest of the farmers to come. I wondered why they were playing my favorite hymn and Pauline our hostess said it was her favorite hymn too. We were listening to the day long and country wide funeral broadcast for Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest serving President who had recently died at the age of 95, not universally loved in his life but seemed to be well respected in death.

It was a beautiful day on a beautiful farm in Nkubu.

We had an opportunity to address a group of local potato farmers about farming in Canada. We were waiting because people don’t go to a meeting on time in Kenya. If the meeting is scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m., this means you start thinking about getting ready to go to the meeting at 9!  Eventually everyone will come and when they arrive, they will be enthusiastic and engaged.  All meetings start with a prayer.

There are basically three styles of farm and farmer in Kenya.

There are the large white settler farmers which run as commercial operations with modern techniques and equipment. These farms are successful and deal with the same problems that face agriculture around the world. Their local issues would be lack of support services like equipment dealers and transportation.

Then there are the small farms or shambas, as they are called locally, I would divide them into two categories. First are a small size of one to two acres where most of the work is done by women and generate very little cash. The larger ones, up to ten acres, are considered “rich” farmers by the community.  These still don’t have much in the way of equipment but do generate cash and create day jobs. On this size farm the men generally stay home and work with their wives to manage the operation.

The Meru County Government has recognized the work that Farmers Helping Farmers have been doing in Kenya for 40 years with dairy farmers and families. The Meru County government Is very interested in improving local potato production and has asked Farmers Helping Farmers to access the industry with a view to developing similar production training to the dairy programs.

That is why I was there and, after two visits, we see lots of potential and lots of room for improvement.

Mechanization on the shambas consists of a machete or panga and a grub hoe or fork jambe.  No tractors or electricity and lots of back-breaking labour. Think digging potatoes with a stick!

Potatoes are the number two agricultural crop in Kenya behind maize or corn.  I am told the potato production in Kenya is larger than the potato industry in the UK but is very different.

We identified two aspects of Kenyan potato production that we may be able to help with.  One is storage and the other is pesticide handling and safety 

Potato storage in Kenya is different than it is in Prince Edward Island because they produce two crops every year so only store for up to six months. Most storages leave much to be desired and good storage is virtually nonexistent. 

On shambas, it usually consists of a shed that is uninsulated, with sunlight shining through gaps in the boards and often a window.  There are some experimental storages constructed of straw bales covered with stucco, which are a big improvement The Meru County government is trying to put up some proper storage which can be shared by multiple growers.

This lack of storage is a major problem for marketing. There is a big supply of potatoes at harvest time, which occurs in January and February and then again in July and August. This has a depressing effect on prices.  Potato prices rise several months later when the quality and quantity of stored potatoes is low.

The other problem we see is with the application of pesticides. As potato growers in Kenya try to improve production practices, by using certified seed and proper fertilization, they also increase spraying for the same reasons that Canadian growers do, using similar products.

Virtually one hundred percent of the spraying on shambas is done with backpack sprayers, mainly by women and often by women of child-bearing age.  Safety equipment is very rare, even gloves are not commonly used. Operators spray in front of themselves walking through the wet foliage and spray mist. This creates a situation which is unacceptable.  

Kenyan farmers use the same products as we use in North America and Europe. Companies sell them in small packages suitable for backpack sprayers.  Labels are much less detailed than we see and give mixing instructions for backpack sprayers. Re-entry intervals or times are impossible to observe because they are walking in the field while applying.

The team working in Kenya to try to improve this situation consists of Ken Mellish, Kendra Thurston, and myself with a lot of technical assistance from Ken Lingley of On Target Spray Services and Eric Richter with Syngenta, both home in Canada. Farmers Helping Farmers staff member, Stephan Mwenda and our driver Franklin Muthamia were invaluable to our project by providing local knowledge when sourcing parts and labour, translation and technical help. 

We took sprayer components consisting of a pump, regulator and nozzles from Canada, designed and supplied by Ken Lingley and purchased the hardware for the sprayer cart in Kenya.

Our plan was to build a small cart which could be pulled easily through the fields by hand and would have a batter- powered pump with a twenty-litre tank and enough nozzles to spray two to four rows of potatoes.  We were able to purchase the battery, a solar-powered battery charger,a tank and motorcycle wheels in Kenya.   We got great service from the aptly named Try Hard Traders Hardware in Meru. Many shops in Kenya have very descriptive names, my personal favorite is The Well Hung Butcher!

We found a helpful welding shop on the roadside in Kiberichia and put together a frame for the sprayer. Our first design was a one-wheeled version to minimize tracks through the field but we found it to awkward and difficult to handle, so we scrapped that idea.

Next, we built a two-wheeled version which straddled two rows and had a boom with eight nozzles designed to spray four rows on thirty-inch centres. This solved a lot of our problems and is relatively easy to operate.

We had the opportunity to show the sprayer at a local farm open house field day on our last day in Kenya. The sprayer generated a lot of interest and positive feedback.

Now that we have a prototype and a better understanding of the problem, we hope to do some research and experimenting on Prince Edward Island. The goal is to go back to Kenya and build ten to fifteen more units and get them out in the fields to see what works and what needs improvement. 

The spray cart concept will only work on the larger fields. There are additional challenges to spraying the small plots with anything other than a carried sprayer. The fields are always fenced in and usually the gate is only wide enough to walk through.  There is no headland or space at the end of rows and row width is inconsistent.  As part of our project, we hope to modify a backpack sprayer to spray behind the operator.

Hopefully we can make some improvements to the issue of safe application of pesticides. The best case scenario is that we design an affordable, small scale sprayer which is efficient to use and provides an acceptable level of safety for the operator.

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