Two structures sit side by side atop a gentle hill. One is built of timber. The other, looking like an Eskimo igloo (house), is a conical-shaped structure build of cement.
“The concrete one is an ambient store. The other of timber is called a defuse store. Each store is uniquely built to serve a specific purpose. While the ambient store is used to store both ware and seed Irish potatoes for a period exceeding four months, the defuse store is for grading potatoes,” explains Moses Kiptala, the chairperson of Mengya Integrated Farmer’s Association (MIFA). The group, founded in 2008, currently comprises 30 members – 14 females and 16 males, in Bennet sub-county, Kween district. Moses Kiptala is also one of the best farmers for 2018.
Ware Irish potatoes are those grown for consumption and seed Irish potatoes for planting.
The group grows both ware and seed Irish potatoes on commercial scale for sale.
Since the start of this year, however, the group is focusing more on seed Irish potatoes, which has wider demand within Sebei region, Bugisu region and parts of central Uganda where Irish potatoes thrive like Mubende district.
Blending both research and good farm practices over a period of time, MIFA is gradually aspiring the lead supplier of seed Irish potatoes in eastern Uganda. At present, the group has cultivated 18 acres of improved seed Irish potatoes on its farm.
The seed Irish potatoes, Kiptala explains, were purchased last year as mini-tubers from Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research Institute (KAZARDI) in Kabale district, western Uganda. The group bought 80 bags of mini-tubers, each at sh180,000. Transporting each bag from Kachekano to Bennet sub county cost sh30,000. The mini-tubers were of the rwangume and kinagye, the local varieties varieties.
Mini-tubers are second-generation seeds of Irish potatoes derived from the yields of plantlets imported in test tubes from Peru in South America. South America, comprising 12 countries, is among the lead producers of Irish potatoes in the world yielding over 15.7 million tons annually, according to statistics from UN FAO. The plantlets are grown in clean sand and well-managed conditions so as to yield clean mini-tubers (seeds).
“We started multiplying the seed during the first season from March to June last year. In our first harvest, we got 540 bags and 800 bags during the second harvest in the second year. Seed potatoes are harvested only thrice in their lifetime as a seed potatoes. In the fourth harvest, one gets ware (consumable) potatoes,” Kiptala says.
Inside the ambient store, seed potatoes of the local and the new Dutch varieties are spread spanning the whole length of the rectangular floor with an aisle in the middle for easy movement therein. The Dutch varieties include sagitta, markies, panamera, taurus, connect and el mondo.
The sh30m ambient store, whose construction was partly funded by International Potato Centre (IPC), a South American international organisation focusing on the development of potatoes, was built in 2015. The store can take up to 620-100kg-bags of potatoes.
“During the bumper harvest when prices of potatoes drop to, say a lowly sh300 per kilogramme, we buy the ware potatoes in bulk and store them inside. Here, potatoes can stay for over four months without losing taste, colour or weight. In the months, prices may even double, triple or quadruple. That’s when we sell the stored potatoes at good profits,” Kiptala explains.
The unique ability of the ambient store to preserve potatoes for such a lengthy period is contained in its scientific build. Potatoes, Kiptala explains, are living organisms that breathe.
“Underneath the store, there are openings called ambions which bring in fresh air from outside. The potatoes in store suck in the fresh air. Then the top of the store has openings where the heat and air released by potatoes escapes. The aeration thus occurs through the fresh-in-hot-out mechanism. So the potatoes, spread out on the timber floor inside the store, stays fresh as though they are in soil,” Kiptala says.
The International Fertilizer Development Cooperation (IFDC), a Netherlands international agricultural development organisation in early 2017, provided the six Dutch varieties of potatoes to group. These include sagita, markies, panamera, taurus, connect and elmondo.
The group received 200 tubers of each variety from IFDC – Uganda.
Before approving the potatoes for commercial seed production, the group subjected them for research on six plots, that is, one per variety.
The findings on the yields for most of the varieities were encouraging and some performed below expectations.
“Of the six varieties, sagita yields the highest followed by markies, panamera and Taurus in no particular order. On average, from the 200 tubers from each of these varieties, we harvested two bags of seed potatoes. We replanted the two bags. On average, one bag of the Dutch variety yields from 18 to 20 bags of potatoes. Recently, we sold 42 bags of the Dutch variety at sh180000 per bag,” Kiptala stresses.
Comparably, one bag of the local variety yields from 15 to 18 bags of potatoes, according to Kiptala.
The group’s fear, however, is how to access the mini-tubers for producing potato seeds for Dutch variety as soon as the three-season period for producing seed elapses.
David Slane, the IFDC chief of party explains that the Dutch varieties are preferable for making potato chips.
“Given their broad and oval shape, it’s quite easier for chefs to just slice the potato chips out of the Dutch varieties unlike the round-shaped potato species. This makes the Dutch varieties a favourite among big hotels and restaurants,” Slane explains.
The defuse store, built by the group at sh22m, contains shelves and can hold up to 1200 bags of potatoes.
It’s here that the group sorts potatoes into different sizes before packing and delivery to the market for sale.
Given the relative progress the group is enjoying complete with proper record-keeping discipline, it begs the question on their source of knowledge on farming and financing. But more peculiar is the fact that the group has multiplied threefold from nine members at its onset in 2008 to the current 30.
Moses Yeko, a member of the group explains that the bulk of knowledge that the group is employing in managing its farming activities have been acquired through trainings and learning visits from right fromits inception.
Yeko says in 2010, the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) sponsored the group to travel to its research centre in Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research Institute (KAZARDI) in Kabale district, western Uganda to learn better farming practices on producing of both seed and ware Irish potatoes. He adds that the Integrated Seed Sector Development – Uganda (ISSD), a Netherlands civil organisation has continuously guided the group on how to produce quality potato seeds that conform to international standards.
“In Irish potato seed production, quality matters to sustain clientele. So we have to work closely with the district agricultural officer at the planting, weeding, flowering and harvesting stages. The agricultural officer is supposed to inspect and ensure conformity to standards at every stage. Our slogan is: more production plus quality equals more money,” Yeko says.
To ensure readily available seed potatoes for farmers at the start of the planting season, the group has had to adopt farming activities alternate to normal farming season.
Whereas the first planting season for potatoes stretches from March to June and the second season from August to October, the group plants in April and harvests in July for the second season and September to December for the first season of the subsequent year. They target to cultivate 100 acres by 2020 that group projects to yield 18000 bags of seed potatoes per harvest.
Betty Cheptoris, a member of the group explains that the biggest challenge they currently face is lack of certification of their seed potatoes from NARO. This, she explains, is due to the far off distance from Bennet to NARO Entebbe, where tests are done before certification.
“The challenges notwithstanding, the group has built me economically especially in the area of group marketing. This season, I harvested 56 bags of ware Irish potatoes and earned sh2.4m,” Cheptoris observes.