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February 2024

Potato is booming in Africa. Recently the ninth triennial meeting of the African Potato Association took place at Naivasha, Kenya. The meeting was attended by some 350 potato and sweet potato researchers and representatives of the industry from all over Africa. I was present at the launching of the organization in September 1985 and have not missed one of the meetings in Kenya, Madagascar, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa. The next, in 2016, will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When I started to work in Rwanda in 1981 the country counted 4 million inhabitants and produced 250,000 tons of potato on 45,000 ha. Currently there are well over 10 million Rwandans growing 2 million tons on 160,000 hectares. Potato production increased almost 3 times more than population. Potato consumption in Rwanda, 125 kg per person per year, is one of the highest in the world. The two other major sources of energy and protein in Rwanda are cassava and plantains. In the early 80ies of the past century Rwandan farmers mainly grew old European mixtures of varieties and did not apply chemical fertilizers nor fungicides. Nowadays they have adapted varieties, some informal seed systems and chemicals are used more by the day.

Prof. Gregory Scott of the Catholic University in Lima, Peru, who previously also worked for the International Potato Center with co-authors published an article in Potato research this year entitled: “Booms, Busts and Emerging Markets for Potatoes in East and Central Africa 1961-2010. They concluded that potato production expanded more rapidly in Africa than in any other region of the world in recent years. The increase in production in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania increases six fold during the last 50 years or a annual growth of 4.5 %. This production increase is mainly due to expansion of the production area – currently almost 700,000 ha and with the exception of Rwanda for the reasons mentioned above. Production levels did not gradually increase but showed strong fluctuation associated with social unrest and internal wars in e.g. the democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

In Sudan, Kenya and Uganda yields declined over time and it is suggested that potato spread into new and/or less favourable growing areas with growers needing time to learn how the grow the crop. Growing off-season to fetch higher prices while sacrificing yield may also have contributed to stagnating productivity. Some sources mention land degradation and effects of climate change to have negatively affected yields in some areas. Finally statistics may not be reliable due to the complexity of the potato cropping systems in East and Central Africa due to the remoteness of production regions and practices such as intercropping, relay cropping and multiple harvest per year. Gathering data from the huge numbers of potato growers – about one million in each of the countries Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda is not adding to accuracy. Yet one trend seems obvious for the whole region: the growth rate of potato output declined over the last decade.

Scott et al. came to a number of conclusion that are of importance for the region but potentially also for potato related businesses. The four countries where the bulk of potatoes are grown are Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. Only in Rwanda and in Kenya potato is a major staple and in none of the countries is potato an important source of foreign exchange such as maize for example. Current major constraint are manifold such as new blight and wilt resistant varieties, declining soil fertility, lack of credit and infrastructure such as tissue culture labs and storage facilities. Also institutional weaknesses such as few researchers and extensionists and lacking market information slow down potato growth. On the bright side, however, urbanization with increasing buying power offers opportunities for supermarkets and quick service restaurants. Private sector involvement in seed production is picking up and communication through improved roads and telecommunication and internet open up markets.

My own feeling is that the positive trends will prevail and that potato output will increase again six fold over the next fifty years but then mainly due to increase in yield rather than area. ●

Anton Haverkort


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