By John Majau
For a long time in the past, farmers in Meru wholeheartedly engaged themselves in planting and harvesting of potatoes without even the slightest clue of the specific market they intended to sell their produce to.
Many would be forgiven for thinking that farmers originally cultivated the crop for the sole purpose of consumption by the family while the surplus would be sold, donated to needy or just be feed to the livestock.
Several of them secretly prayed, hoped and wished for the day things would change for better and their daily toiling and sweating rewarded with a free, stable and transparent market where they could earn profits in order to meet their financial obligations.
The system has ensured that the brokers reap the most in the value-chain, with farmers being the biggest losers
Since the 1970’s when potato farming kicked off in earnest in most parts of the larger Meru which is comprised of Meru and Tharaka-Nithi counties, majority of farmers can hardly make ends meet due to exploitation.
Despite the exploitation and mistreatment meted to them they haven’t given up on the crop with many cultivating it like a hobby or pet project.
But fortunately for them now potato farming has taken a new twist for better.
The Meru County Government is coming with guaranteed market following the formation of a co-operative union called the Meru County Potatoes Co-operative Union (MCPCU).
Consequently the potato farmers in Meru County will smile all the way to the bank because the co-operative union is meant to ensure value addition to the potato products, increase earnings and profit margins through regulation of the staple crop.
The County Executive for Trade, Investment, Industrialization, Tourism and Co-operatives Maingi Mugambi said that the initiative which is spearheaded by the Meru County Government will introduce the dairy cooperative model in potato farming.
“The best sample is the milk sector where the farmers deliver their milk to the market in the morning before going back home to feed the cows. The factory which processes the milk takes over after that with the farmer assured of a handsome and profitable pay after the processed commodity reaches its final destination. Value addition is done before selling the milk while the farmer is paid depending on profit and set prices. We shall embrace that model in the potato sector in order to ensure that farmers earn maximum profits,” Mugambi added.
He regretted that the potato farmers are heavily exploited by traders who buy using extended bags noting that farmers are left with almost nothing after deducting all the expenses including labour and farm inputs among others.
“There is a law that prohibits the selling of more than 50kgs of potatoes per sack. As an organised group we will be able to fight the brokers. The farmers are losing a lot of money when they are forced to increase potato quantities in extended bags. For a long time now the brokers have been controlling the market but I want to reassure you that their time is almost over,” said the CEC member.
Speaking in Meru town Mugambi said with proper organisation and management the potato farmers will inevitably prosper and vowed to empower the farmers by ensuring that they control the entire marketing and value addition chain of the crop.
He said it is unfortunate that currently the brokers have more say than the farmer in the market and value chain.
He said it is not profitable for a single farmer to transport from Meru a few sacks of potatoes to Nairobi.
Mugambi said the idea to form a cooperative union was born after witnessing first hand the tribulations of the farmers at the hands of merciless brokers.
He called on investors to establish a factory for value addition within the Meru County, noting that potatos can produce more than 100 different varieties of products once processed.
The officer said more than 7,000 farmers from various parts of the county had formed societies with each society having a minimum of 1,000 members.
In order to qualify to be a member you must first be a farmer cultivating not less than half a hectare of potatoes.
Each of the seven societies should have 500 hectares of potatoes which totals to 3,500 hectares for the entire county.
“We want the potato farmers to join hands through the union and set a processing plant in Meru. We will support the union because it is meant to give farmers power. We shall work together with the union to end the sale of potatoes in extended bags,” said the Meru County Governor Kiraitu Murungi.
During the launch, the co-operative members received certified jelly potato seedlings from the devolved Government.
The CEC member said the county is set to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of a potato processing facility.
Potatoes can be stored in cold stores for up to six months.
“We will be sensitising farmers in their respective societies including Nkuene, Abogeta West, Abothuguchi West, Kiirua/Naari, Kibirichia, Kisima and Timau wards where potato farming is practiced”, said Mugambi.
Each ward is expected to bring together at least 1,000 farmers to form a potato society. The society will be responsible for bulking and cold storage facilities.
He urged residents to join organised and registered groups in order to benefit from Government and donor funding.
“Potatoes are overtaking maize in terms of consumption countrywide. Majority of youth prefer potato chips and crisps instead of maize flour ugali. In the near future potato will be earning more than the maize though currently the later is leading followed by potatoes. We should take advantage of the consumer needs and produce more potatoes,” said Mugambi.
One of the four pillars of President Uhuru Kenyatta is agriculture and food security. Let us perfect the planting and marketing of potatoes in order to ensure food security in the area. In future majority of Kenyans will be feeding on potatoes,” he added.
Meru farmers produced 136,020 tonnes of potatoes valued at approximately Sh5.193 billion in 2016.
There are 15,173 hectares of land under potato production in Meru County. This makes potato among the leading income earners in Meru after tea, miraa and coffee.
The societies were registered in November last year while the co-operative union got it registration on April 6th 2018.
The Meru County Potatoes Co-operative Union (MCPCU) was officially launched by Governor Kiraitu Murungi at Mitoone Primary School grounds in Kisima Ward, Buuri constituency of the Meru County, .
He urged potato farmers to join hands through the union to plan on a processing plant in Meru.
The Governor promised to support the union which, he said, would empower farmers power. He said his Government would try its best to support potato farmers.
“We shall work together with the union to that end ‘Mituuru’ he added.