Kenya: Farmer starts small, grows wealthy from orange sweet potatoes

| July 22, 2013

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In 1999, disease destroyed farmers’ cassava in Busia County, western Kenya. In response, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, also known as KARI, decided to develop an alternative staple crop for the farmers.

KARI bred a variety of sweet potato known as “orange-fleshed sweet potato,” or OFSP. The vitamin A-rich potatoes can be cooked and eaten, or processed and added to other foods to help fight malnutrition and disease.

Henry Ochieng is a small-scale farmer from Busia who grows OFSP. KARI gave Mr. Ochieng 33 vines and trained him how to grow the potatoes.

Mr. Ochieng planted his vines in a nursery. Two weeks later, they were big enough to transplant. By multiplying OFSP, he has been able to increase his planting area from a quarter hectare to nearly one hectare.

Mr. Ochieng now concentrates his farming efforts on growing sweet potatoes. His family enjoys eating the crop, and he has enough left over to sell at the market. He also sells vines to other farmers for planting materials. He is respected locally as a multiplier of OFSP vines.

With his earnings from the vines and the roots, Mr. Ochieng bought a dairy cow and built a house. He is also able to pay his children’s school fees.

Farmers in Busia are now growing plenty of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. They formed a group, the Siwongo Processors Company, to add value to the crop.

Patrick Makokha is the group’s chairman. He says, “We saw that the harvest was more than we could consume, and that’s why we started processing.”

The group buys potatoes from farmers. They wash and chip the tubers, then dry them in the sun. The “chips” are then ground into flour and packaged for sale. Some of the flour is sold to processors in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. It can be mixed with other foods in order to fortify them with vitamin A.

Micheal Odongo works with a local NGO called Rural Energy and Food Security Organization. His organization is helping KARI promote OFSP as a food which provides nutritional security, food security and income.

Mr. Odongo says, “People here have had problems with vitamin A deficiency, which makes them go to hospital for [supplements]. Yet it is readily available in the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.”

Florence Naliaka grows one and a half hectares of the potatoes. She says: “I love the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which I mill and mix with wheat flour to make chapatti [and] porridge. I even add it to meat and make a good stew. You can see how my children are healthy.”

The Kenyan government is currently implementing a food fortification policy. This means OFSP farmers like Mr. Ochieng will have a ready market and a bright future.

Mr. Ochieng says: “I have supplied the vines to more than 100 farmers across [Kenya] and East Africa. Imagine, just from [the] 33 vines I got from KARI! This is my major source of income and it has really changed my life.”