A recent case study by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) showcases a new effort to produce high quality “seed” potatoes for farmers in Tanzania. Better seed and more modern varieties, experts say, could spark dramatic increases in production not only in Tanzania but possibly throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.
Working with funds from an investment consortium led by London merchant bank Lions Head Global Partners and the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Tanzania’s Matanga Farms Ltd now produces seed potatoes that should be as good, and possibly far better, than the best imports from Europe and North America.
If adopted by Tanzania’s farmers, the new seeds could produce crops of 25 tons per hectare — more than three times the national average. On paper it looks like a good investment.
Potato farming in Tanzania dates back at least far as the 19th Century under the colonial government established by Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s Iron Chancellor. Today, the market for potatoes is driven by the tourist and safari trade and by demand from middle and upper class urban consumers with a taste for fries.
So far, however, Tanzanian farmers have been hard-pressed to satisfy the market or meet quality standards. The culprit is the absence of modern varieties and high quality seed for planting. Thanks to the Mtanga seed program, however, the lack of improved varieties may be a thing of the past.
With help received from policy experts at TransFarm Africa at the Aspen Institute, Mtanga Farms used an East African Community trade agreement to expedite the importation and registration of state-of-the-art potato varieties from neighboring Kenya.
The Kenyan varieties were the product of more 2o years of breeding work and an investment of more than $30 million. Although called the Kenyan varieties, the new cultivars were developed by plant breeders at the International Potato Center in Peru and were the first modern potatoes developed specifically for the conditions found in the Africa’s tropical highlands.
The availability of improved varieties is not a guarantee of success, however. To achieve impact at scale, Tanzania’s farmers will need thousands of tons of the new tubers to use as seed stock. That’s where Mtanga Farms comes in. Rather than grow potatoes for the consumer market, Mtanga is producing seed potatoes for sale to smallholder producers.
Potatoes, unlike cereals, are grown from tubers – the starchy underground part of the plant – rather than from seed produced above ground by the plant’s flower (potatoes produce both but normally only the tubers are used for farming).
The problem is that tubers degenerate quickly and after a year in ordinary storage are all but useless. The principal culprits are virus diseases, but other pathogens and pests also play a role. To overcome these issues, farmers in industrialized countries routinely buy fresh seed most every year. In Africa that’s rarely the case. Most farmers simply save their seed year after year.
The GIIN study rightly points out that challenge facing the Mtanga Farm is whether or not they can convince farmers to buy fresh seed more frequently and if possible each year. If they can, five years from now potato production could generate significant sums for Tanzania’s agrarian economy and help lift large numbers of people out poverty. But that’s a big ‘if.”
Aside from the issue of cost, it takes roughly 2 tons of seed potatoes to plant a hectare. That’s a lot of tubers for Mtanga Farms to be transporting over Tanzania’s mountain road system. Compounding the problem is the absence of an effective extension service, access to credit and the availability of facilities to store the seed until they’re ready to be planted.
It’s a challenge, but not necessarily a deal breaker. The trick for Mtanga Farms and their investors may be to uncouple themselves from the retail seed market and focus instead on supplying small quantities of ultra-high quality seed that can be easily transported through a decentralized network of small-holder farmers trained to produce their own high quality, branded seed potatoes under license.
If they can, Mtanga may just solve a problem that has plagued African potato production since the Bismark era and provide a solid return to its investors.