Characterization of Potato FarmingA typical farm represents an average small-scale farm with its specific farm characteristics as it can be found in parts of Kenya respectively. Therefore, data collection was done by the von Thünen Institute, a German Federal Research Institute under the auspices of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture, in Kenya. The typical farm for Kenya was selected in Nyandarua County, in the central province of Kenya, which lies about 200km north of Nairobi. It represents potato farmers in the northern part of Nyandarua near the towns Ol’Kalou and Engineer.

The typical farm has a total farm size of 2 ha where about 0.08 ha are used for housing and 1.92 ha are actual farmland on a clay-loam soil. Plots are of different sizes and not necessarily located next to the farmer’s house. The annual precipitation is 1,500 mm/m2 distributed similarly between March and November with a drier period from December to February. Given the high elevation of 2500m above sea level, farmers may be confronted with frost in January. The farming system is rain-fed. One fifth of the farmer’s land is rented at about 20,000 KES (USD 192.5 (2015)) per ha per year, with a non-formalized rental contract that requires annual renewal.

The land market and rental procedures are not standardized. Commonly, land tenants will renew rental contracts when possible as long as the property owner does not utilize the land himself/herself. Though official land markets and registers do exist, formalized rental is seldom. The buying price for arable land in that region is about 2,125,000 KES per ha. However, farmers usually refrain from buying land for lack of equity and unclear land tenure. Farmers are commonly organized in groups. Some of those groups may be named “cooperatives” though the nature of those co-operations varies. For instance, both focus groups  conducted for the typical farm reported on having a plot of land they cooperatively operate. At the same time, marketing and purchase of inputs was not jointly organized. Farmers purchase their inputs and market their produce individually. In one case, members of a group built a small storage facility together, but still do not market the potatoes together.

Potatoes comprise 0.6 ha of the typical farms’ plotted area, and grown once a year on the same land, followed by a type of pea (snow or garden pea) combined with maize that is used as fodder crop for the livestock. Potato production uses about 707.5 working hours/ha, without machinery but a little involvement of other equipment such as knapsack sprayers and hoes. It is with the same equipment but higher labor input (875 hours/ha) that the farmer cultivates garden peas. Assessing the share of family and hired labor prove difficult in focus group discussions2. Experts from NPCK suggested that the share of family labor might be about 40% for certain operations though. The typical farmer uses farm-saved seed potatoes, that is, potatoes from a previous harvest used as seed potatoes for the new season. The variety preferred by both farmers and traders in Nairobi is Shangi, a local variety, given its marketability. When interviewed by the von Thünen Institut, traders reported that the Shangi variety is equally suitable for mashing and boiling, and therefore local customers prefer it to other varieties.

Farm-saved seed potatoes are selected by size. The nonmarketable (small) potatoes are selected as seed potatoes. The local agricultural advisors recommend positive selection of seed potatoes, which is based on certain desirable traits such as plant and crop health. During planting, seed potatoes are inserted into holes dug by a hoe (jembe) or fork jembe with fertilizer (Di-Ammonium Phosphate, DAP) added on top and small hills are manually piled thereafter. Since the farmer does not face cash expenses for farmer-saved seed potatoes, the opportunity costs for marketing the potatoes is used as a proxy to mirror the economic value of this produce (i.e. 11 KES/kg). The typical farm applies fertilizer. On crop protection, the typical farm applies fungicides (8,000 KES/ha) and insecticides (3,500 KES/ha) sparingly on potatoes, and herbicides are not used at all. Crop protection products are usually bought as liquids with local suppliers, mixed and applied manually through knapsack sprayers by two hired laborers in the beginning and mid of May after weeding and again (without weeding) in early and middle of June.

Because of the overall farming practices and lacking inputs, the typical farm harvests only about 8-10 tons/ha of potatoes. The produce is sorted by size on the farm and filled into bags for transportation. The national government has standardized these bags in an effort to ease comparison of prices of different counties. However, the standard bag is closed by a net-like sequence of knots closing the bag in a cone shape. That shape and its volume again vary according to the skills of the labor involved, thereby widening the range in the weight of bags. A standard bag of potatoes closed with such a net may weigh between 70-80kg. Local traders supply the farmers in Nyandarua with bags for their harvest and come to pick the bags post-harvest by pick-up trucks. The produce is usually transported to more densely settled areas and major cities for sale or marketed to processors in Nairobi. Farmers do not have official access to credit or other forms of financing. A major driver for their choice of the harvesting time is the necessity for cash provision, e.g. for school fees. Some farmers harvest potatoes before full maturation simply to access cash for the household needs.


Mechanization level in potato production in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is low. Most of the small-scale farmers use hoes and forks or animal-driven ploughs for land preparation in order to save labor costs. The few farmers who use tractor-driven equipment – mainly during ploughing – do not even own the equipment but hire it from other farmers. Most farmers apply fertilizer, form ridges, weed/hill, and harvest by hand. The level of hiring labor for these activities is low. Table 1 offers a good overview of current cultivation practices in Kenya.



Potatoes are generally cultivated on the same farm land year after year, with a few farmers rotating potato with other crops such as maize, cabbage, wheat among others. Stubble cleaning is required before preparing the land for planting. However, most farmers simply burn the stubble or uproot crop residuals by hand.



Manual tillage of land using hoes, animal driven ploughs, and other rudimentary tools is still practiced by potato farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Those who use the tractor to plough their land, often do so with disc ploughs. Tillage by hand or with a disc plough is both inadequate, as they tend to turn the soil at a very shallow depth. Manual tillage, for example, seldom exceeds a depth of 10-15cm while disc ploughs reach a maximum depth of 20cm. Disc ploughs and animal driven ploughs leave big clods on the land, which makes soil seedbed preparation difficult. In addition, such fields do not facilitate the development of young plants and tuber development.



Most smallholders undertake seedbed preparation by hand. Larger farms rent tractor driven ridgers. Due to the poor tillage described earlier, disc harrows are unable to adequately refine the soils and prepare seedbeds. So farmers tend to plant the potatoes between the clods and break them up later while cultivating the land. This practice results in uneven and poor germination, and limits vigorous tuber formation.



The fertilizer application is mainly done by hand, utilizing hired labor in most instances. Only a few farms apply fertilizer by tractor-mounted spreaders.



Planting is done manually by making holes with a hoe and covering the tubers with soil. As the plants sprout and grow, ridges are then formed by a hoe. But the shallow and narrow ridges hinder tuber development. The process is also very labor intensive. Farmers with larger plots rent tractors that pull the ridgers. In such cases, initial steps are taken to mark the rows, place the seed potatoes in the marked rows by hand before the ridger covers the tubers with soil forming smaller ridges.



Cultivation and weed control is mainly carried out by hand. Weeding and hilling are performed using exclusively forks and hoes. Farmers also hire labor for this. Large commercial farms apply herbicides and use tractor mounted ridgers. A few service providers having ridgers cannot make use of the equipment for cultivation because they have no access to the type of tires required to drive in between the rows. This is also indicative of the potential lack of spare parts to ensure proper maintenance of equipment.



If crop protection measures are applied, small-scale farmers mainly do this with hand-driven knapsack sprayers. Most small holders own such a knapsack. One limitation with the use of this sprayer is the difficulty to keep an appropriate application rate through the operation, especially on larger plots. Most farmers furthermore, do not know what nozzle sizes to use for particular chemicals at different times of spraying.



The majority of potato farms harvest the potatoes manually with a hoe and/or fork “jembe”, which results in significant damages and losses of potatoes. Damage caused by casual labor and harvesting tools represents 7.4% of on-farm losses. Farmers also harvest immature potatoes for different reasons. In Kenya, the early harvesting is practiced because farmers want to enjoy higher prices, which occur before the peak of the season. Harvesting is labor intensive and the use of inappropriate tools results in damage and poor quality of tubers. Currently, there are no known service providers in Kenya, from whom farmers can rent harvesting machines.



Seed Potatoes Most farmers do not have adequate storage facilities for seed potatoes. Some potato seed tubers are stored at home, until planting time. In Kenya, seed potatoes are generally stored on the floors of farmhouses and in round huts made of mud bricks and straw constructions. High losses occur because of diseases (rot) and pests (rodents) attack. Some small to medium scale seed potato producing farmers constructed diffused light stores. They constitute a minimum of 10% of the farmers in Kenya. A far less percentage that is large commercial farms has their own cold stores for the storage of seed potatoes. Some donor-supported projects have supported the construction of diffused light seed potato stores and are used then, but those remain inaccessible to the majority of farmers.

Ware Potatoes

The greater part of smallholder produced potatoes in Kenya are sold directly on the field to merchants. Storage of ware potatoes by individual farmers is virtually unknown in Kenya, as nearly all are sold immediately after harvest.



Seed Potatoes Irrigation ensures that plants have access to appropriate levels of moisture during the different stages of growth, tuber formation, and development. Potatoes are largely cultivated under rain fed conditions in Kenya. Farmers mainly do not practice any form of supplementary irrigation. Thus, risk of lower yields due to weather failures is high. In Kenya, it is mainly in Meru County that farmers use irrigation. About 20% of farmers in this county use furrow irrigation, even though there is a much higher potential. This gap points to some untold challenges with availability and access to irrigation for potato farming in Kenya.

Crop Cultivation Techniques With Regard To Mechanization

2 For the farm economics section focus group discussions were conducted. Definition: A small group of people whose response to something is studied to determine the response that can be expected from a larger population.