Picture: 123RF/Sergiy Akhundov
Picture: 123RF/Sergiy Akhundov

Maua — A sweet scent fills the air as workers in white gumboots, aprons and hats mix ingredients and roll out dough at a modern factory in central Kenya, the only one of its type in Meru county.

The dozen products made there, including bread, cakes, doughnuts and crisps, all share the same main ingredient: sweet potato.

Owned and run by Meru Friends Sacco, a savings and credit co-operative, the facility in Maua town was established two years ago as a way to help people access nutritional food in a region where crops are routinely destroyed by drought.

The co-operative’s members of more than 1,000 farmers were motivated by a UN report warning climate change and poverty were threats to health in the lower parts of Meru, says Patrick Mbaabu, the factory’s GM.

They wanted to find a crop that would boost climate resilience in the area while also addressing the issue of malnutrition, he says.

After first considering bananas and Irish potatoes, the farmers settled on sweet potatoes because they are rich in Vitamin A and essential minerals, Mbaabu says.

In addition, the hot, dry weather that makes it hard to grow thirsty crops in Meru is ideal for the sweet potato plant, says Julius Inyingi, chair of Meru Friends Sacco. “The warmer the area, the faster the crop grows,” he says.

Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority and the EU helped pay for the factory, which cost 40-million Kenyan shillings, and also provide training for the farmers on how to run it and grow the potatoes.

As the farmers in Meru Friends Sacco urge their neighbours to grow more sweet potato, they highlight that the underrated plant is easy to cultivate — even in poor soil — and versatile, which adds value to the crop, Mbaabu says.

Interested farmers are provided with drought-tolerant, disease-resistant vines that have been propagated for the project by the Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, under Meru county’s agriculture department.

There is no accurate figure yet for the number of farmers supplying the factory with sweet potatoes, but their ranks are steadily growing as farmers are drawn by the extra income and a nutritional boost for their families, Mbaabu says.

After registering with the project last year, Grace Kiambi planted her sweet potato vines among the bushes of khat on her small farm in Maua. Growing the crops together means each benefits from the nutrients the other releases into the soil and also makes watering more efficient, Kiambi says.

Before the project, she would earn an average of 8,000 Kenyan shillings each month selling khat, a mildly narcotic leaf. Now she brings in nearly double that. “Planting sweet potatoes has helped transform my life,” Kiambi says.

All-year food supply

Sweet potatoes are well-suited to the county's erratic rainfall, says Inyingi of Meru Friends Sacco. The vines can be planted at any time of year and require little water, he says.

They grow fast as long as the weather is warm, so farmers are often advised to leave the roots in the ground for as long as they can and only harvest them when needed.

“That helps provide farmers with a continuous food supply, even when other crops have failed,” he says.

Hellen Ringera, a nutrition coordinator for Meru county, says growing sweet potato could help improve health in the area.

She mentions the county’s latest malnutrition survey, carried out in 2014, which reveals a quarter of Meru’s children are stunted.

“Besides providing a rich source of energy and nutrition, the project will also help increase household incomes (and) employment opportunities,” she says.

Before they joined the project, farmers used to rely on brokers who bought their produce at “throwaway prices”, says Martin Munene, agriculture director for Meru county.

Now they sell directly to the factory for 50 Kenyan shillings per kilogram, double what they got before.

“With the sweet potato value addition, we are in line with the government’s agendas of having a food-secure and healthy country while creating employment for the youth and women,” Munene says.

The factory sells its sweet potato-based products and flours — all certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards — to local businesses and schools.

It produces about 3,000 loaves of bread and 320 crates of doughnuts a day, as well as flour, among other goods.

Though the factory guarantees the farmers payment within seven days, it sometimes does not make enough profit to also cover the wages of all the factory workers, Mbaabu says.

Demand for sweet potato products is higher than the roster of farmers can handle, he says, a problem the group is trying to solve by bringing more into the project.

Farmers often have trouble acquiring enough sweet potato vines from the Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, which is also struggling to keep up with demand.

Despite the challenges, in a country where many people can barely scratch a living from their fields, Kiambi, the farmer in Maua, says growing sweet potato could provide some relief.

“It has not only kept my farm productive throughout the year, but has also turned my financial life around and I now comfortably tend to my family,” she says.

Thomson Reuters Foundation