Kenya: Struggling potato growers sign a new deal (Trust)

January 29, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Sitting on a rickety bench at his home in Kipipiri, about 125 kilometres from Nairobi in central Kenya, Samuel Macharia pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and proudly points to the signature at the bottom.

He says, “This paper means I get paid on time for my potatoes, even when the weather is bad.”

The precious document is a farming contract Mr. Macharia signed in March 2017 with the East African Potato Consortium. It says he will sell at least two tonnes of potatoes to food processors each harvesting season for the next two years.

He adds, “Thanks to this contract, I can earn up to 22,000 shillings (US$212) per season.”

Recurring drought and sudden cold spells have affected the quality of potatoes and other staples across Kenya.

Peris Mukami, a farmer from Timau village in Meru County, says her potato yields declined by more than 10% in the past two years because “… it is either too cold or too hot.”
She explains, “The cold damages potato vines with frostbite, while heat makes them wilt.”

To fight back, Kenyan potato farmers such as Mr. Macharia are increasingly turning to production contracts with food processors—a system known as contract farming—through the East African Potato Consortium.

By working with the consortium, they get access to fertilizers and to seeds that better withstand harsh conditions.

Wachira Kaguongo is the head of the National Potato Council. He says farmers also get a guaranteed price for their crop, as long as they produce good quality potatoes on time.

The consortium was set up in 2016 by the National Potato Council, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and the Grow Africa partnership. Mr. Kaguongo says it aims to increase private investment in agriculture by linking potato farmers with food processors across the country.

Willy Bett is cabinet secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. He says the National Potato Council reviews and approves each production agreement, to ensure it is fair to both parties.

Mr. Bett adds: “Businessmen will always want to get farmers to sign something that may not be favourable to them. We’re trying to prevent that by ensuring that farming activity is done on a contract basis in Kenya.”

Contract farming has allowed farmers to sell produce to food giants such as the fast-food chain KFC, formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Mr. Macharia’s potatoes now fetch 22 shillings (US$0.21) per kilo, more than double what he used to get when selling them at the open-air market in Kipipiri.

He says, “I am paid in cash at my farm. And I do not have to travel to the market when I don’t want to.”

Mr. Kaguongo says 5,000 farmers have signed up to the system so far, with a total of 23,000 expected to make the switch by 2020.

Felix Matheri is a researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. He says that, while contract farming provides farmers with a steady income, it risks depriving poor families of their food supply.

He explains: “Contracts bind farmers to supplying an agreed amount of potatoes, meaning that when the harvest is low, farmers are forced to sell all their produce to meet their obligations…. But potatoes are rich in starch and a critical source of nutrients—farmers should save some for home consumption.”

Others have concerns about contract farming as well. Louise Wangari is a roadside potato seller in Nyandarua County. She worries the new contracts might affect her potato supply.

She adds: “The quantity of potatoes I was getting from farmers was already decreasing due to extreme weather. If they start signing contracts with other buyers, then I may be out of business soon, as I can’t afford to pay them as much as the food processors.”

This story was adapted from an article titled “In Kenya, struggling potato growers ink a new deal,” published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original article, please see: http://news.trust.org/item/20180108015608-28d5t/