The business in seed potato: new technology spurs hope for better incomes

The Feed the Future Kenya Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) program implemented by a consortium of CGIAR centers, sought to harness the technologies and innovations within the research system ‘to sustainably reduce poverty and hunger in Kenya with the objective of increasing inclusive agricultural growth and improving nutritional status of communities.

The potato value chain, led by the International Potato Center, supported 46,700 smallholder farmers with technologies to improve farm productivity and engage in market systems. The seed system for potato was scaled out to reach farmers who previously did not have access to quality seed by transforming 150 progressive farmers into seed multiplier businesses. One such progressive farmer is Samuel Kibet Sugut who is providing clean seed to potato farmers using a newly introduced technology—rooted apical cuttings. His story was recently published in the weekly magazine insert, Seeds of Gold, in the Saturday Nation newspaper in Kenya and a crosspost is available below:

In the quiet Kipsirigo village in Nandi County, a new agribusiness is picking up.

Samuel Kibet Sugut is among those who have embraced the new agribusiness, which involves the multiplication of Irish potato planting materials, having abandoned dairy farming to concentrate on the cash cow.

Sugut, who was a dairy farmer for 15 years, has seen a bright future in the production of the disease-free materials that many farmers are turning to. As he prepares his small piece of land for planting, his phone keeps ringing every few minutes, with nearly all the callers enquiring about the availability of seeds given that the short rain season is just around the corner.

Sammy Sugut on his seed potato field multiplication farm in the North Rift of Kenya. Photo Hugh Rutherford for CIP

Sugut says that all farmers who planted his clean seeds last season realised more than a double harvest compared to what they usually get from on-farm recycled tubers, the reason why the appetite for more clean planting materials is high.

“This is a new agribusiness for me, which in the last two-and-a-half years has proved to be a worthy investment,” says the farmer, who sold three of his dairy cattle in 2016 to raise capital for the informal potato seed production using rooted apical cuttings.

Dr. Dinah Borus, an agronomist and the North Rift Field Coordinator for ‘Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP)’ or International Potato Center, explains that an apical cutting is similar to a nursery-grown seedling except that it is produced through vegetative means and does not originate from a seed.

Sugut is one of the more than 150 farmers who have been trained by CIP while working with the county governments in the North Rift and Meru counties to multiply disease-free potato planting materials for local distribution.

The initiative is supported by the Feed the Future  Kenya Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) program funded by USAID.

“Most of the potato farmers in the country have been planting inferior seeds, which is mainly leftovers from their harvests, and because of this, the yields have been very poor in terms of quality and quantity,” said Nancy Chebii, the Ol’lessos ward agricultural officer in Nandi County


The use of farm-saved seeds, which is the common practice throughout the country, comes with many challenges.

“Some of them have bacterial seed-borne diseases, others viral or fungal such as late potato blight,” Dr Borus tells Seeds of Gold.

A survey by CIP in 2016 revealed that yields averaged 10.9 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) for many farmers, much below realistic yields of 20-30 t/ha.


A harvested seed potato plot originally planted with rooted apical cuttings.
Dr. Dinah Borus holding rooted apical cuttings ready for planting in the open field.

So far, there are only two main centres in Kenya that produce certified disease-free rooted apical potato seeds commercially, and they can only supply up to five per cent of the farmers across the country, according to CIP. And because of the vast distance, say from Nandi County to the nearest seed producing centre, which is Agricultural Development Cooperation in Molo for example, many farmers have never had a chance to plant a certified seed in their lifetime.

“This is what informed our project, through which we started producing apical cuttings using tissue culture technology in laboratories, and since 2016, we have trained several farmers from Nandi, Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu and Meru counties on seed multiplication,” says Dr Borus.

The apical cutting technology has been endorsed by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), and it has been incorporated in the seed system as starter materials to produce certified potato seeds.

The CIP research scientists are working with private companies in Nairobi and Naivasha, which have facilities for tissue culture technology. The companies produce the cuttings and sell them to seed multipliers — selected farmers like Sugut.

To do this, desired varieties are identified and the vegetative materials are taken to a laboratory for a tissue culture process, through which cuttings that are similar to seedlings are produced. The cuttings are then sold to seed multipliers at a cost of Sh10 to Sh 15 each

Continue reading in the Seeds of Gold, Saturday October 6, 2018.

apical cuttings, AVCD, seed potato, USAID