Potato farmers put sawdust to new use

As more farmers move into potato farming to sustain growing demand for the crop as the country’s second staple food after maize, they face post harvest losses as high as 30 per cent. But one farmer in Kinangop area of Rift Valley has managed to find an ingenious, low-cost way of preserving potatoes that is now being copied across the Rift. The farmer, Kanuthu, who had suffered incessantly from losses, found the preservation method quite by chance, using saw dust. But the method is now being copied across the district, with farmers reporting increases in the shelf life of the potatoes of up to three months, up from just two weeks. Limited by the absence of preservation techniques, farmers had traditionally been forced to sell potatoes all at the same time, creating a glut in the market, and rock bottom prices. They cannot leave the potatoes in the field, since the produce is highly perishable and prone to pest attacks underground. In Kinangop, an area that produces high quality potatoes, a 90kg bag of potato normally goes for Sh2500, but during the harvesting peak, when farmers harvest at the same time and are therefore competing to sell at the same time, prices can fall as low as Sh600. “Cover transportation cost to the market and labour and you see its like taking your potatoes and throwing them down a pit. Overcrowding in the market is every farmers’ nightmare,” said Ndengo, a farmer in the area. It is this dilemma that gave birth to the the saw dust preservation method. Kanuthu had long used sawdust as bedding for his chickens. One day while looking for the saw dust in a dumpsite where carpenters discard wood shavings, he noticed potatoes that had been thrown away resting in the sawdust. “I never bothered with the potatoes, but after two weeks when I went there and found the potatoes still in good condition, like I had seen them two weeks earlier, I decided to experiment and true to what I thought, the sawdust preserved my potatoes,” said Kanuthu. The trials on how long the sawdust could conserve the potatoes, once complete, saw him share the find with the rest of the farmers, creating a practice that has now become common place in Kinangop district. Farmers first ensure that the sawdust is moist but not overly wet. If the sawdust is used dry the quality of the potatoes declines rapidly and they are susceptible to pests. On the other hand, if the sawdust is too wet, the potatoes will get rotten after a short time. The farmers prepare a clean place to preserve the potatoes, lay a foundation of saw dust, then spread the potatoes in the foundation and add another top layer of the sawdust. “This ensures that the potatoes are preserved in all areas bottom and top so that no area will have green patches which render the potato unfit for human consumption,” said Kanuthu. Kanuthu who is an average potato farmer in the area is preserving about 600kg, but says those with larger quantities have also adopted the sawdust method. Despite initial scepticism from fellow farmers and agricultural officers, the method has also now transcended boundaries to other regions of Kenya’s breadbasket, the Rift Valley, as farmers test its efficacy for other crops like maize and peas. Agricultural officers and experts have now also given the preservation method a nod after studying it for 18 months. “We called Kanuthu and got him to explain the concept to us. We trialed it in our demo farms and true to his word it worked. We have been inspired by his discovery to do more research into how we can extend the shelf life to even more months,” said Lameck Rono, an agricultural officer in Kinangop. The rise of the saw dust preservation technique has also opened up new business in the sale of sawdust, with even neighbouring regions supplying Kinangop with the much demanded commodity. A 90kg sack of sawdust fetches between Sh600-Sh1000 and traders haven’t managed to satisfy the ballooning demand by farmers. “Especially during the harvest season we can even double the price, but farmers will keep purchasing,” said Muiga a sawdust trader. One sack of potatoes, if well arranged, requires half a sack of sawdust to preserve. However, the preservation has stabilized market prices for potatoes and opened the way for farmers to have a guaranteed income, year round.

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