Sunday 19 November 2017

Irish potato experts invent new spud to help feed millions in Kenya

Richard Rugendo, Joe McHugh and Derek Roulston meet members of the Maasai tribe
Richard Rugendo, Joe McHugh and Derek Roulston meet members of the Maasai tribe

Greg Harkin in Naoiribi

Ireland can help provide food security to Kenya through incredible scientific advances in the production of the potato involving Irish experts, it was revealed today.

Donegal farmer Derek Roulston has been leading a group of experts from the Donegal Investments’ potato company IPM planting crops 2,000 metres above sea level in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

They have developed new breeds of potato based on research carried out in association with Teagasc at its Oakpark facility in Co Carlow.

Today Overseas Development Minister Joe McHugh was in Kenya to see IPM sign a deal with Kenyan farm food production company the Kevian Food Group.

Kenyan food entrepreneur Richard Rugendo pictured with (centre) Overseas Development Minister Joe McHugh and Irish potato expert Derek Ralston from Donegal seed potato company IPM.
Kenyan food entrepreneur Richard Rugendo pictured with (centre) Overseas Development Minister Joe McHugh and Irish potato expert Derek Ralston from Donegal seed potato company IPM.

Under the agreement the Irish company will work to provide seed potatoes to food entrepreneur and Kevian group founder Richard Rugendo.

“I know that Ireland lost half of its population to death and emigration during your potato famine. Today Irish expertise is helping to develop potatoes which will hopefully help us to avoid famine and hunger here in Kenya,” said Mr Rugendo whose company processes fruit produce from small farms in the country.

He said IPM would provide disease-free potato seed for Kenyan growers and help provide several crops per year.

Mr Rugendo has also established a farming and agri-business centre in Kitengela, about 90 minutes east of the Kenyan capital. He visited Ireland in 2014, spending time at Oakpark.

Derek Roulston, (50), from Newtowncunningham, has been helping Kenyan potato production for more than 15 years.

However the new test crop was developed in laboratory conditions in Kenya with yields up to six times higher than indigenous species.

Richard Rugendo, Joe McHugh and Derek Roulston meet members of the Maasai tribe
Richard Rugendo, Joe McHugh and Derek Roulston meet members of the Maasai tribe

“The potential for the potato to feed the masses is becoming more and more recognised,” said Derek.

“It has a lot more drought and heat resistance than you would think.  It is more efficient in using water to produce carbohydrates than maize or wheat.

“There is huge interest in Kenya and right across Africa in potatoes right now.

“For Kenya the big food crop has been maize and that was the staple diet but in the past few years it has been hit with a number of different pathegons (diseases).

“Farmers realise the potato is more dependable but there has been a huge problem sourcing seed. We cannot import seed directly because there is a risk of importing disease so we have brought genetic material from our Irish potato varieties here to Kenya.

“The productivity of the Kenyan seed potato has been declining so the yield has been dropping to around three tonnes to the acre.

“At home in Donegal we’d be hoping to get 20 tonnes per acre. The seeds we have grown here under laboratory conditions have now been planted here and the first crops have been very very good. We are very happy with it.

“We will have to keep checking the next few crops and get approval then after that so we are looking at progress to full production in the next two years.

“I am very excited because this programme has massive potential to help feed millions of people in a country and on a continent where the population is exploding.”

Minister Joe McHugh also announced €120,000 in funding via the Irish Embassy in Nairobi for the construction of 12 low-cost potato storage sheds to a dozen farming co-operatives.

The design was piloted by Derek Roulston and allows longer storage of crops, achieving better prices for farmers.

Minister paid tribute to Teagasc, IPM and Rugendo.

“We can be very proud of the work being done by IPM and Teagasc and the massive potential their work here has for so many people,” he said.

“The potato crop has been part of the Irish journey and we want to help it to be part of the Kenyan journey going forward.”

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