Seeding Positive Farming Practices: Kenyan Seed Value Chain Part II

In my previous blog on the potato value chain, I discussed how Kisima Farms multiplies CIP’s disease-free seed for sale to local farmers. So far, these seeds produce higher yields and greater income for local farmers. However, this is not the only way that Kisima has helped distribute CIP varieties to local farmers.

Kisima Farms has adopted the aeroponic system developed by CIP to produce disease-free minitubers in a short period of time. These minitubers are held safely in cold storage before being sold to local smallholder farmers at a fair market price. The aeroponics system increases the speed of minituber production and allows Kisima to produce large amounts of disease-free minitubers. The benefit of this to the local farmers is that they can plant all of their seed in a single season rather than relying on saving seed for the next planting season. This increases the single season yield and also allows the farmer to be nimble enough to plant a different variety in the next season based upon what the market preferences are that season. “Don’t store your seed,” says Martin. “Use all that you’ve got and come to us next year when you need more seed.” Until farmers have developed better post-harvest handling and storage, or become multipliers themselves, or develop better market information sourcing, this level of seed security for the farmer will benefit them in the long run since they no longer have to worry about storing seed properly and can better respond to market demand.

Assured access to appropriate seed varieties is a great leap for farmers in Kenya. Helping them get there is the job of the Kisima Farms Agri Information Centre (remember that place by the gas station that I mentioned in the first blog on this topic?). There Charlie Dyer, who runs the Kisima Foundation, has set up a visitor’s center that is open daily and hosts farm days with educational sessions. A young Kenyan technician named Kome heads the technical staff at the center. He shows us the CIP varieties in the field and side-by-side trials of beans to demonstrate how certain varieties grow in this environment. The center also has two cold storage units made from local materials. Kome invites us into the storage units and they are noticeably cooler than the outside. Inside different varieties of potatoes are stored. Most of the potatoes are doing well but some have deteriorated. Charles and Kome agree that the moisture content in the unit is too high and the ventilation needs to be improved. Alternatively, those varieties need to go to market sooner, or be brought to storage earlier.

Before leaving the Agri Information Centre we met a Cluster Farm member. He explained that on his farm this year, Kisima Farms seed had facilitated large yields! His profit enabled him to build a cold storage unit on his farm, which is a relatively rare and innovative incidence, given that building such a unit is cost and time intensive. However, the benefits of cold storage in timing the market are considerable.

In fact, to help farmers better exploit the market, Kisima Farms is in the process of building a cold storage unit, imported from China, large enough to house a large amount of ware potatoes produced by local farmers. They plan to purchase ware potatoes from local farmers at fair market prices and sell them. If they sell the potatoes at a premium price, participating farmers will receive a dividend.

“This will only work if farmers know that they have a stake in the game,” says Charlie as he looks out across the construction site for the new cold storage unit. “We are going to put in place a ruthless grading system and hold the farmers to it,” he says and he goes on to explain how just one bad potato could spoil an entire harvest kept in storage.

By only accepting quality potatoes according to grade, Dyer hopes to reinforce the message of buying good seed. This feedback loop in the value chain is important because it puts the onus on the farmer to be more conscious of quality control for their product. This, in turn, is an incentive to acquire more knowledge, which is provided from the Agri Info Center via pamphlets, educational seminars, field days, and field trials. So far, local farmers have been getting the message. In just the first five months of 2013, the Agri Information Centre has held four small-scale farmer field days and training days reaching 3,500 participants.

If you read my previous blog on Kisima’s participation in the potato value chain, you probably have an image of Kisima Farm as being an NGO-like organization with social scientists and agricultural extension agents but this is not the case. It’s a family-owned, for-profit business operating on a vast expanse of land in Central Kenya. It begs the question, “what’s in it for Kisima Farms?” Not being shy, I asked Charlie that question, who unflinchingly stated “I’m a Kenyan and I want to do what’s best for this country. Practically speaking in today’s world, it is imperative that Kisima becomes more valuable to Kenya.” That’s an admirable intention and from the looks of it the Dyers really do believe in this and the idea of corporate social responsibility.

It’s fair to say that Kisima Farms will benefit if the local community also thrives. It’s also noteworthy to point out that using CIP seed potatoes, combined with good cultivation techniques, Kisima Farms has produced 30,000 tons per 50 hectare plot—specifically compared to using home saved or traditional varieties of seed that would only produce 15-20 thousand tons. Martin Dyer extrapolated that he could produce 60,000 tons of ware potatoes if his focus were not primarily on seed potato. A brochure produced by the Kisima Foundation, a community-based non-profit started by the Dyers, states that certified seeds distributed by Kisima Farm could increase a farmer’s production from 27 bags per acre to 100 bags per acre which would amount to roughly $900 per harvest. According to USAID the average income per acre of potatoes is $335.i

However, the demand for quality seed in Kenya far exceeds Kisima Farms’ ability to meet it. “Even if we doubled in size, we would only produce two to three percent of the demand,” says Martin. There’s a tremendous amount of bad seed on the market and some new seed entering the market that fills the demand of some of the processors is not disease-free. Some of the new seed that’s high in demand may seem appealing for our Cluster Farmers; however these (largely) processing varieties require higher levels of inputs-including fertilizers, as well as chemicals required to fight disease and pests. The solution would be to get more multipliers to produce CIP’s disease-free seed, including those that are best suited for processing. To do this will take time and effort to build the business case that will prove the value to the farmers, and to also train them in the proper techniques. Still, the results shown at Kisima Farms, based on using a combination of CIP’s disease free seeds and appropriate technology transfer are clearly having a positive effect, and can serve as a model in other areas.

i Kenya FY2011-2015 Multi-year Strategy. USAID, Feed the Future. National context of production, consumption, and profitability informs USAID value chain investments. Figure 2. P. 13. (2011). USAID Feed the Future states that the per capita income per hectare of potatoes in 2010 was $806. A hectare is 2.4 acres $806/2.4= $355/acre.