An overproduction of sweet potatoes by farmers in Kirinyaga district, coupled with poor pay by the dairy sector in the area, have together spawned an innovation that has moved into swift take-off, in the form of portagurt, a yoghurt made from a blend of milk and sweet potato.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) introduced a high yielding sweet potato some three years that was adopted widely by the Kirinyaga farmers, who found a ready market for the potato, which is high in betacarotene, a source of vitamin A, and in high demand for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and by hospitals and schools. However, within a year, the many entrants into the market had saturated the market, leaving vines to rot in the gardens.
But then farmers in the adjacent Mweura area got into a fight with dairy vendors and middlemen over poor pay. Through a farmer exchange programme, a value addition plan was conceived to create the new portagurt, and with help from youth from the local polytechnic, farmers made simple machinery and set up a factory.
“We also managed to get funding from a local church NGO to build a freezer, which has gone along way in assisting us produce in large quantities,” said Milka Muchira, an active member of the Mweura farmer group.
The lengthy production chain for the special yoghurt has meant employment for more than 200 people “with almost every unemployed person in this location now being guaranteed of pay at end month,” said Milka. The farmers are also creating a new demand for the sweet potatoes.
Once the sweet potatoes are brought to the makeshift factory, they are washed, peeled and put in the oven for baking. Milk mixed with warm water is added to the sweet potato blend and put on the fire until it reaches 90 degrees. After adding the starter culture, which aids in fermentation, the mixture is incubated for some four to six hours and then put into the freezer for three hours. It is then moved to the fridge where it is creamed and sugar and other flavours are added, after which it is bottled, packaged and sold.
The packaging is done in quantities to make the produce accessible to all consumers, with the cheapest portagurt selling at Sh15 and the most expensive at Sh120. “In a day, we produce over 1,000 litres and we feel that this is not enough, since we never cover all our clients,” said Milka. However, the rudimental machinery and even limited storage space has stopped them from producing more.
“Moreever, it is not as easy as it sounds, because there are other factors that come to play like hygiene issues, which are greatly missing here. Milk is a very sensitive commodity and a good medium for bacterial growth and we have lost a lot before realising we were doing it wrong or the way we were handling equipment wasn’t right,” said Daniel Muraguri, another farmer.
Currently, St Charles Lwanga Schools is the biggest client for the farmers’ group. In a day, the school consumes over 200 litres, with the school now also getting into a partnership with the farmers to train primary school children in portagurt making, in a bid to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset in the pupils.
The enterprising spirit of the farmers has now also seen them approach financial institutions for credit as business soars and the need to expand their business to neighbouring areas still grappling with sweet potato overproduction. Already, two micro finance institutions have come in with a proposal to assist the members in buying a bigger freezer and more modern processing equipment.
An Australian NGO is also exploring with the farmers ways of improving the portagurt and at other value addition ventures in an area whose topography is well suited for almost all crops, but is either under utilised or where farming is strong, suffers from commodity oversupply. “We want to see how best we can combine all these produces the farmers are producing and make something of quality and highly priced, both for the local and international market,” said Mark Zwald, a programme officer with Truefarm Australia.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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