May 22, 2024

Tissue culture tech boosts Kenya’s potato yields

Clive Tatenda Makumbe in Kenya

A community project that provides farmers with healthy potato seeds, cultivated using innovative laboratory techniques is significantly increasing yields in Kenya, an agricultural expert says.

Kenya’s average potato yield per hectare is around ten tonnes but has the potential to increase to three times that amount with the use of disease-free seeds, according to Anthony Kibe, principal investigator of a potato community action research project led by Uganda-based Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture.

The forum’s project in Kenya — one of 11 across Africa — has benefitted about 5,000 smallholders since starting in 2017. It gives farmers access to quality, seeds through a process called tissue culture — the cultivation of plant tissues or organs on specially formulated nutrient solution in a laboratory or controlled environment.

“Tissue culture offers an excellent technique for the rapid propagation of seed potato, offering high yielding disease-free planting materials.”

Anthony Kibe, Egerton University

“Tissue culture offers an excellent technique for the rapid propagation of seed potato, offering high yielding disease-free planting materials,” says Kibe.

Tissue culture produces plantlets also known as apical root cuttings, and mini tubers (tiny potato seeds) which are clean and free of disease, Kibe explains, adding that the technology speeds up the multiplication of material to facilitate distribution and large-scale planting.

Tissue culture technology is applied in the production of disease-free and high-yielding fruits and vegetables in East Africa, including bananas.

But for potatoes it is mainly practiced by large commercial farms, seed companies and government research institutions mainly because of costs and complexity of the technique, adds Kibe, an associate professor of agronomy in the crops, horticulture and soils department of Egerton University in Kenya.

This means that certified seeds are relatively expensive and out of reach of the estimated 800,000 smallholder farmers engaged in potato farming in Kenya.

As a result, only around four to five per cent of seed potato planted in Kenya are certified, according to the International Potato Center, a member of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers.

“This is unlike in leading world producers such as the Netherlands … where 99 per cent of farmers use certified seeds,” Kibe explains.

Potato, he says, is a low priority food crop in Kenya’s agricultural research system despite its contribution to combating hunger, with 78 per cent of food crops research going to maize, the main staple crop in Kenya.

Richard Mbaria, who has a four-acre farm in the Elburgon area of Nakuru county at the heart of Kenya’s potato-producing highlands, says that access to potato seeds for smallholders like himself is not easy because commercial farms often sell in bulk.

“A farmer buying tissue culture seed potato would spend between three to six times more what they spend to plant conventional certified seeds,” Mbaria says. “This in turn favours large-scale farmers, leaving smallholders with their low-yielding seeds selected from the previous harvest.”

But Mbaria touts the benefits of apical cuttings. He tells SciDev.Net that 100 apical cuttings can produce as much as 100 kilograms of seed potato on average.

Kibe agrees, adding that new varieties produced by the technology have led to yields as high as 30 tonnes per hectare compared with up to ten tonnes per hectare for conventional seeds.

Mike Cherutich, a potato expert at the Agriculture Development Corporation’s seed potato centre, Molo in Nakuru, Kenya, says that although seed potato produced from tissue culture technology tends to be more expensive than traditionally certified tubers, the new technology ensures that the material planted is free of virus and other major disease such as bacterial wilt.