ONCE FORGOTTEN, SWEET POTATO IS NOW HOT CAKE

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The popular sweet potato is well known for its great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals such as beta-carotene that acts as powerful anti-oxidants in the human body.

According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), sweet potato has a number of varieties for both food and feed.

Kalro orange fleshed sweet potato are for commercialization, income generation and health improvement.

Sweet potato varieties vary depending on their flesh colour, maturity time and recommended growing areas. Some of the common varieties are Kenspot 1, Kenspot 5, Kabode, Vitaa and Mugande according to Kalro.

Festus Omogi grows sweet potatoes on his farm in Siaya County and shares vital lessons.

Land preparation

Choose an area in full sun, till the land and add compost manure to make it fluffy. “You can plant on a flat land or make ridges, let the land warm up before planting,” says Omogi.

Propagation

He says sweet potatoes can be propagated from cuttings or tubers. Propagation from cuttings is possible only when the sweet potatoes remain in the field all through the year. The cuttings should be about 20 to 40 centimetres long, with three to five growth buds.

“It is best to take them from the tips of young stems,” he says.

Planting

The sweet potatoes are planted in rows of mounds or ridges raised above the ground. These ridges and mounds can be made by hand or using oxen plough or tractors, for those who can afford.

When planting, the sweet potato vine is inserted into the mound or ridges with the buds facing upwards. The vines should be planted at a 45-degree angle and ensure at least two-thirds of the vine is buried inside the soil. Bury slips up to the top leaves, press the soil down gently but firmly, and water well.

Weeding

Once the vines have established and began to spread, weeds should be removed constantly until the sweet potato tendrils have covered the ground, upon which they will largely suffocate the weeds. You can also get rid of the occasional weeds by hand.

Fertilizer Application

According to Omogi, sweet potatoes do not really need fertilizers and will do well in moderately fertile and well-drained soils. Farm manure is okay. A farmer who wants to focus on vine rather than tuber production can use the DAP fertilizers.

Pests

Most sweet potato varieties will give good yields despite pest infestation. The most destructive pest to look out for is the sweet potato weevil. To minimize impact of pests, plant on land where sweet potatoes have not been grown in the past two years. The soil can also be earthed up after every four to six weeks to regulate the weevil build-up.

Harvesting

Depending on the variety, sweet potatoes can be ready after four to six months. The yellow fleshed sweet potato are the slowest maturing and will take up to six months to be ready for harvest. Once ready for harvest, the tubers can still stay in the ground for months.

“You will be able to easily identify the larger sweet potato tubers by looking for cracks in the ground. Depending on the sweet potato variety, you can harvest anywhere from 40 to 60 bags of sweet potatoes per acre,” says Omogi.

Jael Ochanji is one of the few youths who have made an unpopular decision among the young people- to leave her job and move from the city to a rural home just to grow sweet potato, a step she never regrets.

She was working for milk powerhouse, Brookside Dairy Limited as a sales representative in Nairobi, a job which earned her Sh.50,000 a month.

After working for about 10 years, she decided to resign and got involved in sweet potato brokerage in Nairobi’s Wakulima Market.

She would work in connection with her mother who arranged for the tubers from their rural home in Kabondo, Homa Bay County and send them to her in the city.

“Sweet potatoes do well in our rural home but farmers just rely on open-air markets in the village which do not have enough buyers. My work in the city, therefore, involved looking for the market as mum collects the produce from growers and we arrange for transport,” said Jael.

For two years, the young lady was able to connect with many buyers including supermarkets where she had won supply tenders.

Unfortunately, when her mother got ill in 2017 and could not do much work, she decided to go back to the village and to get involved in the serious production of both white and the much-cherished orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

“As much as I had to source the produce from other farmers, producing it myself seemed more reliable and profitable so that I do not disappoint my customers in the city,” she said.

She used some of her savings to lease more farms and today she has 20 acres of family land and 35 other acres that are leased for crop production.

Jael has mastered crop production saying that since the white variety takes three months to mature while the orange-fleshed takes five months, she has to spread her planting schedule to ensure steady harvesting throughout the year.

Before planting the vines, she makes ridges or mounds which helps in conserving soil moisture, reducing soil erosion, making harvesting easier and improving yields.

As most farms in the area are still fertile, she only uses manure to grow the potatoes since most consumers today prefer organically produced foods.

“Kabondo is well known for fertile soil as the area is at the foot of Kisii highlands and besides we receive rainfall almost throughout the year making our products all year round,” said Jael.

Sweet potatoes have a short maturity period of 3 to 7 months and because of their short duration, it is very strategic for addressing food insecurity.

However, according to Jael, most of the crops consumed locally are imported from either Uganda or Tanzania as local farmers who are majorly smallholders cannot produce enough especially during dry seasons.

“Fortunately, Kenyan consumers love our home-grown yellow and white sweet potatoes for food because they are tasty, rich in nutrients and they do not become soggy when cooked like other varieties,” said Jael.

Today, she transports over 80 sacks of 80kg of sweet potato every week to Wakulima Market which is her main selling point.

She sells a bag at Sh.3,500 (minimum price) but during high demand, the price can shoot up to Sh.7,000 a bag against Sh.1,500 in rural markets since almost every home has some sweet potato farm.

This translates to Sh.280,000 during low demand and Sh.560,000 in high demand selling in Nairobi.

She spends a total of Sh.18,000 in planting, weeding and harvesting.

Hiring casual labourers for packing the produce in tracks costs her Sh.5,000 while transporting a sack to Nairobi costs her Sh.500.

The agro-entrepreneur who has since come up with her company also sells an average of seven bags of sweet potato vines at Sh.1,500 each per week to farmers and livestock feed processors at every part of the country.

“I can now cater for my family needs besides running other projects as part of future investments,” said Jael.

She plans to put up a sweet potato processing plant to process different products and enable her and other farmers from the region to access direct market to their produce.

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