The tiny potato tubers: A nightmare for farmers in Uganda
Potato (Solanum tuberosum) is one of the main crops grown in Uganda. Most of the production (87%) takes place in the highland areas of South-western region where the crop has become prominently important as a source of food and income for the smallholder farmers. However, the reality that many of us are unaware of is that not all the tubers farmers currently harvest are of any economic value. In some farms, up to 6 out of 10 potato tubers per plant harvested are too small to be marketed or prepared for a meal. It is therefore a nightmare for such potato growers that for every harvest about 60% of their investment is thrown to trash in form of valueless small-size tubers. The situation has been worsened by farmers’ perception and misconception that seed potato has to be of small size. No single effort has substantially convinced the smallholder farmers that “good seed is not size but quality”. To many, small size and quality are synonymous, and the seed sellers have capitalized on this misconception to reap big by selling these inferior, otherwise valueless tubers, at high prices. The farmers themselves are also in the game! On harvest, they sort out and keep the tiny tubers as seed for the next season. They are not aware that the tubers are tiny because of various factors including quality degeneration and disease infestation, hence disqualifying them as seed.
The recycling of these tubers rejected by the market and consumers also recycles the inferior attributes of the potato and drags on diseases of the previous seasons to the next. This creates a vicious cycle of unproductivity that makes farmers live with a nightmare each season and each harvest. This practice is partly responsible for the persistent low productivity (more unmarketable tiny tubers season after season) and low profitability recorded in Uganda’s potato value chain. One could read disappointment, anxiety and despair on the faces of the farmers. They invest a lot in the production, but reap unexpectedly low and they cannot figure out why.
The CARP+ Project, funded by the MasterCard Foundation through RUFORUM, is working with potato farmers and communities in South-western Uganda to give them hope and reverse their nightmare into a lucrative venture. Indeed, the CARP+ Team, whose objective is improving the potato value chain in Uganda, discourages recycling poor quality seed and promotes adding value to the harvested tubers in order to increase farmers’ benefits. The Team, led by Professor Johnny Mugisha and two of his experts in Food Science and Technology, Dr. Abel Atukwase and Napoleon Kajunju, Msc Student, believes that value can be made out the tiny tubers, making a breakthrough in the potato industry. Not sparing the potato peels, the Project looks at the tiny tubers as raw materials for a high quality flour that can be used as a supplement food or intermediate material in making products like snacks, biscuits, breads and non-food products. The good news is that in making flour the size of tubers does not matter unlike in the French fries industry, for example.
This will provide a viable outlet for the tiny tubers, making them unavailable for recycling as seed; creating value out of them, and breaking the vicious cycle of low potato productivity. With patience, potato farmers in South-western Uganda are waiting and supporting the CARP+ Team for the realization of this dream.
By Napoleon Kajunju, Msc Student and
Johnny Mugisha; CARP+ Project PI