The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is trialling the highest yielding potato seed ever developed for Kenyan farmers, ahead of a planned release in April 2011 of three new potato breeds for mid and high altitude regions - Sherekea, Purple Gold and Kenya Mpya - that are disease resistant, high yielding and tolerant to viruses. Trials of the new varieties are being conducted with farmers in potato regions of Timau, Mt Kenya, Meru.
Of the three varieties, Sherekea is the highest yielding variety, capable of yields of between 40 to 50 tonnes that can be harvested 100 to 120 days after planting. “This is going to benefit farmers the most,” said John Onditi a breeding specialist of KARI’s Tigoni branch, where the breeds were developed.
The Purple Gold can yield 25 to 35 tonnes per hectare in mid-altitude areas, but thrives in high altitude regions where yields can be from 35 to 45 tonnes per hectare. However, it takes 120 to 130 days to be harvested, which is longer than for the other two breeds. The tubers are also longer, said Onditi.
The Kenya Mpya variety is suitable for mid and high altitude regions and can yield 35 to 45 tonnes a hectare in 90 days, and can be harvested while the plant is still green. “Farmers prefer such breeds especially for food,” said Onditi. “It’s not necessary to wait 120 days,” said Onditi. The Kenya Mpya also has the shortest dormancy period of 1 to 2 months until shoots begin sprouting.
The other two varieties have longer dormancies. Sherekea breaks dormancy in 2 to 3 months and Purple Gold in 3 to 4 months.
The three new varieties have high resistance to late blight and are adapted to tolerate viruses common in mid and high altitude regions. The previous potato breeds, last released by KARI in 2002, had optimum yields of between 35 to 45 tonnes. But “they had low levels of disease and virus resistance,” said Onditi.
The release of the new breeds by KARI has been driven by changing market demand from potato traders and consumers. The breeds have better post harvest characteristics and don’t begin rotting if the skin is bruised during handling.
The new breeds will also expand the options for growing potatoes for Kenyan crisp manufacturers. Crisp makers such as Deepa Industries need medium-sized potatoes with shallow eyes, as deep eyes mean the potato is cut deeply when peeling resulting in wastage.
In Kenya, only the Dutch Robyjn potato is suitable. However, farmers in Narok who were contracted to grow the potato have realized yields of only 20 to 30 tonnes a hectare. In addition, the breed has been highly vulnerable to diseases such as late blight, meaning the farmers have needed to use costly chemicals to fend off the blight.
However, the three new breeds are all suitable for crisp making, and the Purple Gold is ideal. This has been partly because KARI has been working with both Deepa Industries and crisps manufacturer Njoro Canners to understand the kind of potatoes the industry requires. “They give us their standards,” said Onditi.
But the challenge will lie in getting the new potato breeds out to farmers. According to KARI figures, the take-up by Kenyan farmers of all the certified quality potato breeds they have released is still at only around 1 to 2 per cent.
Over 90 percent of Kenyan farmers are still planting breeds that deliver yields of 7 to 10 tonnes a hectare, and which are also susceptible to disease and virus attacks. “Certified seed is very limited in distribution in Kenya,” said Onditi.
The problem is due to the limited number of reproduction laboratories in Kenya. Unlike maize, where private breeders engage with KARI to reproduce many seed varieties, private companies find the reproduction of potato seeds expensive.
KARI currently works with the Agricultural Development Corporation in Molo and Kisima Farm in Timau to multiply new potato breeds. The research institute is also encouraging private companies to adopt new Aeroponics technology that multiplies disease free potato tubers by 5 times per plant. The technology, costing some Sh100,000, can be bought by a group of farmers interested in breeding more disease free tubers.
According to Onditi farmers who continue planting disease prone tubers with yield capabilities of 7 to 10 per hectares will inevitably suffer poor results. But if private companies or farmers opt to co-breed the new varieties with KARI, it will supply training and technical advice.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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