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Researchers Seek to Show Kenyan Farmers Benefits of Potatoes Over Maize

Victor Otazu, a aeroponic specialist with the International Potato Center, tends to some aeroponic potato plants in Nairobi, Kenya

Victor Otazu, a aeroponic specialist with the International Potato Center, tends to some aeroponic potato plants in Nairobi, Kenya

Kenyans love to eat maize. It's the country's favorite food. But researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute are looking for ways to change that.

Is this what's in Kenya's future -- plants grown without soil, and in this case not maize, but the humble potato?

Researchers from the Peru-based International Potato Center and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute are conducting experiments on harvesting seeds from potato plants grown using aeroponic technology.

Seeds are germinated in the laboratory. The seedlings are then fixed into holes cut out of Styrofoam sheets. And then after the seeds are developed further, they are harvested and distributed to farmers.

Soil often contains bacteria and other microorganisms harmful to potato plants. And seeds infected with viruses produce low potato yields.

"[With] aeroponic seed, we were able to produce 40 tons [of potatoes] per hectare," said Victor Otazu, a aeroponic specialist with the International Potato Center. "Now, the farmers' seed only yields eight to 10 tons per hectare, so you can see the difference in yield production. If we are able to produce enough seed for all farmers we would be producing a lot of potatoes for Kenya."

Maize has been Kenya's staple crop for ages. The researchers say that potatoes grown from the superior seeds of aeroponic technology could replace maize as Kenya's staple crop, and help to protect the country from droughts.

"I think we have relied on maize for a long time, us Kenyans," explained
Researcher Miriam Mbiyu. "Bear in mind that potato is a short crop, it runs only for three months, and maize runs for the shortest five months and others, eight months, seven months. So we are trying to encourage farmers to get into this, at least to boost up our economy."

Farmer Derek Roulston likes the idea.

"If you have difficulty in drought, generally you will harvest something from potatoes, and it is very unlikely that you would get a complete crop failure, whereas with maize, in the last few weeks of production is when most of the yield is produced and it is more I would say drought-prone than potato crops," noted Roulston.

But that might be a tough sell. For many Kenyans, their number one comfort food is a polenta-like dish called ugali, made from maize meal. Another favorite dish, a stew of maize and beans called githeri, is equally central to the Kenyan diet.

A quick survey on the streets of the capital Nairobi bears this out.

MAN1: "Normally I consume the normal food of an African - that is maize, githeri, beans, meat."
MAN2: "Myself, I consume maize. As you can see, I am very strong. So it is only maize.
WOMAN: "I consume ugali. Yes. I consume ugali, I consume githeri. I am a Kikuyu so you see, maize will always be part of my life."
MAN3: "Personally I have been thinking it is high time for Kenyans to change. Me, I come from Vihiga District where potatoes are gaining momentum. So many people are switching - so many people are planting potatoes."

The aeroponic experiments are expected to be concluded in a year. Researchers say they aim to set up aeroponic units in other parts of the country, and to urge farmers to grow more potatoes and Kenyans to eat them.