Kisava was referring to the seed potato of an improved variety that he obtained at the end of 2014 thanks to a CIP initiative to expand farmer access to quality seed potato in order to improve food security and incomes in his country. He explained that he planted 25 kilograms of the improved seed potato and that they produced a harvest of nearly 800 kg. “This has never happened in my life,” he said.
Kisava’s experience is an exception to the rule for most of Africa’s six million potato farmers, whose potato yields are far below the global average. Potato is an important food security and cash crop for smallholders in the African highlands, but most of them produce a mere fraction of the potatoes they could harvest due to poor seed quality and other deficiencies. CIP is trying to change this by supporting national agricultural institutions to evaluate improved potato varieties that are adapted to local conditions, while promoting economically viable systems to produce and distribute quality seed potato at prices that smallholders can afford.
While potato breeders at CIP and its African partners have developed improved potato varieties with high yields and resistance to many diseases, getting them into the hands of the farmers that need them most has proven to be a major challenge. Most of Africa’s potato farmers either select planting materials of the next crop from their own harvests or buy them from neighbors or informal suppliers. The problem is that potatoes tend to accumulate viruses and other diseases that are transmitted from one crop cycle to the next via seed tubers. Accumulation of such pathogens in potato planting materials will progressively reduce the quality and quantity of harvests significantly over time. CIP is consequently partnering with national agricultural research systems, and increasingly the private sector, to build local capacity for the generation, multiplication and distribution of seed potato.
CIP deployed an array of tools to accomplish this in Tanzania during a three-year seed potato development project funded by the Government of Finland that ended in March 2015. CIP co-implemented the initiative with the University of Helsinki (UH), in collaboration with three Tanzanian institutions: Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (ARI Mikocheni), the Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), and Uyole Agricultural Research Institute (ARI Uyole). The project goal was to improve the livelihoods of smallholder potato farmers through increased productivity, which it accomplished by supporting the relevant Tanzanian agencies to improve their ability to produce and promote the use of quality seed potato in five districts in the southern highlands of Tanzania. Interventions focused on developing human capacity and skills as seed potato production is highly technical activity requiring diverse skills; rehabilitating laboratories to produce tissue culture plantlets and conduct disease diagnostics; and investing in infrastructure to rapidly produce seed potato, such as greenhouses for protected production of minitubers, one of the first stages of seed potato production. “This project has set a foundation that had been long overdue. It has opened new possibilities in potato research and seed production for Tanzania,” said Dr. Zacharia Malley, zonal Director of Research and Development at ARI-Uyole. “Most importantly, however, the project developed a business plan for which seed potato will be part of the product line of the Farm Production Unit at ARI Uyole.”
Training was provided for private and community seed multipliers, in order to ensure that the clean seed is multiplied and distributed to more farmers as far as possible. Agricultural extension officers were also trained to identify and train farmers in proper potato production practices to multiply seed, and maintain quality seed on farm through positive selection techniques from their own harvests. A CIP trainers manual on positive selection was translated from English to Kiswahili, the national language, for the training of trainers.
One of those trainers is Peter Mgova, a potato farmer in Boma la Ng’ombe, in Kilolo district, who explained that he planted 25 kg of the improved potato variety Meru, which resulted in a harvested of 700 kg. “I recognized that seed of the new varieties has got very high yields compared to our local varieties,” He said. “I recognize that we have been making a lot of losses by planting old potato varieties. I will spread this news to fellow farmers and encourage them to start growing the new varieties to realize similar benefits.”
Thanks to the logistical support of Finland and the technical capacity that CIP and UH contributed to building at the Tanzanian institutions for production of improved seed potato, together with the knowledge and commitment instilled in farmers like Mgova and Kisava, a growing number of potato farmers and their families can look forward to better yields, higher incomes and greater food security in the future.