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Potato processing factory brings Vision 2030 closer

December 9, 2013.Robert Mbugua the shop manager with a fast food outlet is a happy man. Since Steers South C started purchasing ready-to-cook French fries from Midlands, it has made massive savings on labor, water, power and time not forgetting the headache of garbage disposal. ‘’There is no peeling, no washing, no slicing making cooking so easy”! he said with excitement.

“Midlands has the best quality potatoes and  when fried the texture is just nice,” he added explaining that the firm selects types and grades  according to the dish being prepared, the size is uniform while deliveries are honoured without fail.

The Steers experience indicates how far the benefits of value addition can stretch.

And for this, farmers in Nyandarua County are enjoying the fruits of Vision 2030 a decade-and-a -half earlier.

It has taken them eight years to see Midlands Limited take its position as the largest and only rural – based integrated horticulture processing unit that has brought pride and prosperity in Njabini, Nyandarua County, an imposing structure that is increasingly becoming a model of agro processing.

A brainchild of Junghae Wainaina who serves as chairman, it is currently valued at nearly Ksh 1 billion and counting, funds mobilised through shares and equity financing. ‘’Midlands is a farmers enterprise and a classic example of how much they can do if they are well organized and supported. Shareholders comprise of farmers and farmers’ self help groups. There is at present some 7,000 farmers holding shares directly or indirectly in Midlands and the number is growing”, said Mr Wainaina.

Although it has not been an easy walk, Mr Wainaina says it is a dream come true in tapping the enormous potential in the agricultural sector if only the value chain was properly developed and farmers supported with credit and infrastructure.

Midlands’s flagship activity is potato processing and storage, a business that has seen it develop other product lines such as dried vegetables, livestock feed, bottled water,   bio-fuel and packaging as spinoffs, said Mr Wainaina.

Due to the need to rotate potato growing with other crops, Midlands encourages farmers to go for other fast moving crops such as carrots, kales, cabbages , peas and African traditional vegetables which created the dried vegetable line.

The plastic crates manufacturing line was created by the big numbers needed to stack potatoes in the cold store and to protect them during transportation. “ Midlands pioneered packaging and storage of potatoes in plastic crates and it is a matter of time before the sacks become history’’, he said  displaying how crates save on space and keep the produce aired and free of bruises, which would not be possible with  heavy sacks heaped together. Should this prediction come to pass, Midlands shall have succeeded where the Government has failed. For nearly ten years now, the Government has been struggling to get rid  the extended potato bag without success even with the help of two subsidiary legislations.

The water required for cleaning the produce meant Midlands acquires a reliable source of purified water and this  led to the development of the water bottling line while peels and other organic waste is used  to process animal feed. ‘’These lines show how we can develop mini-industries from a single agro-processing unit,’ said Mr Wainaina.

Apart from being the only factory of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, Midlands is on another first as it prepares to rollout a Mukimo or Kienyeji line which will give consumers ready-to-eat food – a favourite with many households but the tedious preparing process discourages its regular consumption.  Mukimo is the name given to the traditional African dish made of mashing a mix of potatoes, vegetables, peas, beans, maize and other crops.

According to Mr Wainaina, the Midlands Mukimo is a well-balanced meal, prepared with a menu that has taken two years to perfect. “It has the right ingredients while the type of the mix peas, vegetables, potatoes – are those recommended by nutrition experts.  Mr Wainaina explains that not all types of peas, vegetables or potatoes are good for this kind of food but most people are not aware of this. “There are different types of potatoes for cooking, roasting, boiling or frying but most people do not know this and it is the reason food at times tastes bad’’, he said.

Midlands could be ushering in a culture of ready-to-eat-ready-to-cook lifestyle in Kenya, especially among the dynamic middle-class that is always on the move.  Already, its chilled chips and potatoes have found a waiting market and the firm is gearing up to handle the rising demand. “Fast food  establishments and restaurants  have placed large orders for the chips that have saved them the trouble of handling, peeling, washing and waste disposal’’, Mr Wainaina said adding that the tonnes of potato waste generated daily, and discarded into the environment could be put into clean energy processing.

The story of Midlands provides a case study to the new government of President Uhuru Kenyatta and   his deputy William Ruto, both of who in their manifesto have put agriculture at the forefront of rural development, food security and poverty reduction.

Mr Wainaina says the potato should be given priority as a food crop because it has universal acceptance, has a higher yield and nutritional value than maize but  has been neglected over the years. ‘’Midlands has shown the importance of the potato, and the government  needs to support farmers through affordable credit and subsidized inputs, just as it does for maize, sugar and other crops’’, he said.

With affordable credit and a ready market, potato farmers can feed this country in a single season, Mr Wainaina says adding that maize should be preserved for tougher seasons and the consumption of potatoes encouraged to support maize. This would require establishment of appropriate storage facilities and well organized distribution system from production areas to the rest of the country.

Mr Wainaina says with affordable credit, companies like Midlands would also afford to buy and pay farmers better creating a vibrant economy.

The collection, storage and distribution chain will stabilize availability and prices as opposed to the current dynamics that are determined by seasonality when plenty of supply leads to reduction in price but the opposite happens off season. ‘’We are able to provide year-round supply of potatoes at stable prices by storing at peak harvest, and this can be replicated in all producing zones.

Midlands is running under capacity, with its 6000 ton storage facility handling less than a quarter of produce.

Power supply has been erratic with frequent outages that lead to usage of costly generators and machinery damage. ‘’To develop industries, Kenya must have reliable and sustainable power supply at competitive prices’’, he says adding that this cost translates to paying farmers less for their produce.

That said, Nyandarua  County is currently a couch of potatoes as farmers, a number of who had abandoned the crop due to exploitation by middle-men are back on their fields, assured of a ready market and weekly payments. Fields that had been left fallow are now dotted with farmers and their farm-hands preparing to plant, others weeding  while others are spraying their crop.

Jesse Kamutu is one such farmer.  The 48 year- old father of one holds a Diploma in Sales & Marketing and after trying his luck as the regional head of marketing with Oxford University Press.

Kamutu decided to venture into potato farming where he says he wanted to market his own produce. “I realized there is a huge potential in potato farming and being a marketer with interest in farming, I only needed to lay out a strategy on how to get into the  business,” Kamutu explains adding that he wanted to specialize in potato farming. He also worked as a high school teacher rising to the rank of Deputy Head teacher.

He is currently planting the crop in different fields in the neighbourhood of his homestead totalling to four acres. Unlike his peers, Kamutu is practising modern farming skills much of which he has acquired through the extension services offered by Midlands. He is also more organized since he follows a well planned two season’s calendar. His seasons fall between January to April and June to October. “I normally time my seasons and plant with expectations to harvest when the market prices are high,” he says.

In one acre, he usually harvests an average of 12 tonnes. He says to ensure high yields, the seeds need to be well selected and avoid borrowing or buying from other farmers as is a norm with most farmers not only in Nyandarua but in other regions across the country. Midlands is discouraging the farmers from the habit of sharing seeds as it affects the productivity of the crop. “We have noticed that there are three common diseases in this area namely Bacteria wilt, Leafroll virus and Rhizonia solari hence our advice to farmers to take caution of the seeds they plant,” says Justus Wachira Midlands Ltd seed development officer.  Wachira warns that recycling seeds leads to degeneration of a variety and multiplication of diseases and the  result is diminished yields.

Midlands has been buying potatoes at Ksh 14/kg (equal to ksh 2240 per a bag of 160kg) compared to middlemen who buy at Ksh1500 for a bag that weighs 180kg. The extra huge bag has since been banned but the practise is still on. Kamutu says some farmers who don’t wish to wait to get their cash opts for middlemen who in turn extort them pretending that since the quality is not good, the size of the bag will reduce once the potatoes are selected and bad ones thrown away.

Being peasant farmers, most of people in this region were reluctant to deal with Midlands due to their paying system. The company collects the produce from the farm gate and records all the details of each and every farmer but pays after seven days through their banks accounts. Kamutu says the numbers has increased and most farmers have realized the benefits of such a payment system. “My bank account is active and if I were to approach the bank for a loan, the credit manager will most likely heed my request,” he says.

For farmers selling to Midlands, they have to adhere to the high quality demand by the company. Factory Manager Eng. Wycliffe Kihumba says they prioritize on quality since they want to move from tradition where quality was not an issue. “We are serving a wide range of clientele with diverse demands and we can’t risk compromising on the quality of our products,” he says.

As Kamutu reveals, Midlands Ltd is at the final stages of signing contracts with the farmers in an agreement where the company will be supplying clean seeds, fertilizers and other farm inputs. This will help in consistency of the produce in terms of quality and the required sizes. Joseph Karanja, another farmer working with Midlands says the seeds distributed by the company are of high quality compared to what he used to plant in yester years. “Since I started planting the seeds given by the company, my yields have increased significantly yet I can’t say I have increased the land under the crop,” Karanja says.

As the vision of Midlands Ltd quickly sprouts and inflates the hope-tubers of the farmers in Nyandarua County, so many others supporting businesses are lining up to reap the benefits of commercializing potato farming. For instance, Kamutu is planning to build a one-stop shop where he operate a grocery, a dairy products shop and a hardware shop for farm equipment.

As the devolved governments takes their first step on the long journey to develop individual counties, Nyandarua County leadership has its job cut out and all it needs is to maximize the potential of famers and make it the potato county.

See HortiNews issue No 26 Pages 34 – 35.

‘Farmers start potato processing in Kenya’

Farmers start potato processing in Kenya

Farmers start potato processing in Kenya

By Catherine Riungu –

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