Mechanised farming increasing potato production in Nakuru, Kenya

Grace Sanga, a potato farmer in Tanzania, hold potatoes she grew

Mechanised farming and improved vairety seeds has helped a family potato business in Kenya go from a harvest of 150 acres in 2021, to more than 500 acres under production in 2022.

Christopher Gasperi, the Founder and Managing Director (MD) of FreshCrop Limited, started the company as a small family business on a 4-acre farm where he was successfully producing potatoes and delivering them directly to markets in Nakuru in Kenya.

When he didn’t have enough produce, he aggregated neighbourhood farmers’ produce and linked them to markets.

“Things were going very well until one year, my seed supplier informed me that there would be no certified potato seeds available until the following year! I scrambled to get local seeds to plant to fill my market contracts but, in the process, my 4-acre farm was infested by potato cyst nematodes,” Christopher narrates.

He shares that it is this experience that opened his eyes to the evident shortage of potato seeds in Kenya, in that only 3-5% of the annual demand was being produced.

At the time, the quest to empower farmers and improve access to certified seeds had begun through testing propagation of apical root cuttings with the International Potato Center (CIP). It was at this point that Christopher’s vision of developing a model for de-centralized potato seed production was born.

“My vision of having hub sites in different regions providing all necessary inputs and services needed to empower farmers for potato production started in Nyandarua and quickly spread to Nakuru and Narok Counties,” he says.

FreshCrop apical cuttings

FreshCrop's apical cuttings growing into improved variety seeds.

He began by building relationships with local farmers and engaging them in an out-grower partnership model for seed multiplication where FreshCrop provided an end-to-end seed production process, including seed planting, agronomic advice, inputs, and markets for the harvested seeds.

The process grew, but scaling challenges occurred due to most farm activities relying on manual labour – acquiring machinery was out of reach for FreshCrop due to the high cost and other risks involved. For example, one acre was planted manually by six people in a day. This resulted in inconsistency in spacing, fertilizer application, and inconsistent ridging. According to Christopher, being unable to effectively utilise land allocated to potato production limited FreshCrop’s ability to scale.

However, in 2019, FreshCrop learnt about the Climate Resilient Agribusiness for Tomorrow (CRAFT) project through the Country Government of Nakuru, that had been invited to attend the CRAFT project’s potato value chain climate risk assessment (CRA) workshop.

The CRAFT project’s approach was appealing to FreshCrop as it provided an opportunity to identify areas of partnership through co-investment – not only to strengthen their business model, but also deepen engagement with the seed off-take market. This included smallholder farmers, medium-sized farms, and farmer organisations, with an overall goal to building resilience to climate change through sustainable and inclusive markets.

FreshCrop was happy to sign a partnership agreement with CRAFT to implement ‘a decentralized potato value chain model for seed and ware production’.

Potato planter

FreshCrop's potato planter

FreshCrop's potato planter in action

The potato planter in action.

“Through this partnership, we attest to improved operational efficiency and reduction in costs at our farms, coupled with timely supply of certified seeds to our out-growers and ware potato farmers. The efficiency is attributable to the CRAFT project support to de-risk our farm operations,” says Christopher, speaking of the grant funding which provided FreshCrop access to machinery called planters, as well as other agricultural mechanisation. “CRAFT support has also strengthen FreshCrop’s engagement with smallholder farmers – our field teams have received trainings in climate smart agriculture (CSA).”

The planter, a machine developed locally and in partnership with Ndume Limited (an agricultural machinery company), is an innovative solution that delivers the exact fertilizer, consistent potato spacing, and automated ridging which enables potatoes to hold a lot of moisture during dry seasons, while also shielding the potatoes from excess moisture during rainy seasons.

As a result of improved seeds and mechanised farming, FreshCrop has seen an increase in production – their productivity rate is six tonnes per acre, compared to an average farm that gets four tonnes per acre with unimproved seeds and manual planting.

Potatoes harvested

Potatoes in one of FreshCrop's hub sites.

Christopher Gasperi

Christopher Gasperi

“In the quest to scale up, we can say that we successfully harvested 150 acres in 2021 and currently have over 500 acres under production going into the year 2022,” Christopher boasts.

This is evidence that mechanised farming has an impact on farmers as well as harvest quality, and is an excellent tool for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.

Written by: Carol Songa, Junior Consultant Communications for CRAFT in Kenya
More information: The Climate Resilient Agribusiness for Tomorrow (CRAFT), is a five year project, implemented in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with focus on three pillars; increasing adoption of climate smart practices and technologies amongst farmers and agro-enterprises; increasing investments and business growth in climate smart value chains; and creating enabling environment necessary to ensure large-scale roll-out of market driven climate smart agriculture. The project is passionate about women and youth inclusion as one of the indicators seeks to increase the number of women and youth employed in the private sector. The cross-cutting workstream for gender and youth inclusion emphasizes targeted interventions where needed, to ensure equity and inclusion through a sustainable gender sensitive climate smart service provision.