Who sits at the table? Policy, people, and potatoes in Kenya

Photo: David Spielman/IFPRI

Although it might seem surprising, many Kenyan farmers, entrepreneurs, and investors are intensely interested in the preparation of new regulations on the production and marketing of planting materials for vegetatively propagated crops (VPCs), such as potato and sweetpotato. The new regulations may determine who can and cannot produce VPC planting material, how quickly yields and output might grow, and what varieties come to dominate the market in the coming years.

At present, seed potato and sweetpotato vines—the propagation materials that farmers use each season to plant a new crop—are produced, stored, and traded by farmers in a largely unregulated manner. Exchanges are mainly local because these planting materials do not travel well, and because only a few privately-owned farms and a handful of state-owned seed enterprises and development projects produce certified planting material. As a result, just 4-5 percent of seed potato planted in Kenya is certified, although this is now on the rise with significant investments by the private sector over the last couple of years. For sweetpotato, the proportion of certified seed is much less.

However, the Government of Kenya is anticipating that by regulating the production and trade in VPC planting material, farmers will gain access to better seed—materials free from pests and diseases that can damage the crop, and materials that contain traits that are appropriate to their farming system and to market demand. This is expected to lead to increased production, higher yields, and greater value for farmers, food processors, and other value chain actors. Access to seed produced under a better quality assurance system is particularly important in the case of potatoes, where bacterial wilt and potato cyst nematode can cause serious damage to the crop.

Following amendments to the country’s seed sector policy in 2016, the Government has assigned its regulator, the Kenya Plant Health inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), to the task. This may be the first instance in Sub-Saharan Africa of detailed regulations being introduced specifically for VPC planting materials. (While seed standards for VPCs are in place in many countries, seed regulations are general stipulations applied to all crops and are typically based on the characteristics of seed for grain crops, not VPCs.)

As it stands now—under a strict interpretation of the current seed law—selling seed which has not been certified seed is illegal. But the situation on the ground is quite different: the informal market and farmer-to-farmer exchanges of seed are likely to play an important role for many VPCs in Kenya for the foreseeable future.

David Spielman (IFPRI) and Daniel Mbiri (CIP-Nairobi) examining potatoes near Meru, Kenya.

Still, KEPHIS is charged with formulating the precise requirements to produce VPC planting material, including registration procedures and fees necessary for a farmer group, cooperative, or enterprise to become a seed producer, sampling procedures, crop-specific parameters and tolerance levels for pests and diseases, and the number and type of inspections needed to secure certification for a seed lot before it is sold on the market.

Will these regulations accelerate yield and output growth by encouraging large-scale investment in the sector? Or will they pose barriers to entry for those looking to invest in the VPC seed business? And will smallholder farmers—especially women smallholders who often play a central role in VPC crop management and seed production—have a voice in the process that ultimately leads to these new regulations?

These are the questions facing a team of researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as part of a study supported by the CGIAR research programs on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas(RTB) and on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), and by the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research.

Preliminary findings suggest that there is indeed intense discourse currently unfolding among stakeholders over the minutia of VPC regulation. A positive sign in all this is that KEPHIS is welcoming these discussions. And so are county governments, given that they are taking up ever-increasing responsibility for agricultural matters under Kenya’s recent devolution initiative.

Findings also suggest that stakeholders are coalescing around two key narratives which are simultaneously competing and overlapping. The first narrative “quality at any cost” ties potato (and other VPCs) to national food security objectives, arguing that increases in yield and output will only be realized within a regulatory framework that ensures the production of certified seed at scale, minimizes the risk of pests and disease, and protects the hard-earned credibility of the country’s regulator. While KEPHIS is an obvious proponent of this approach, it also has received a favorable hearing from European exporters and Kenyan investors looking to expand their presence in the country’s seed potato market.

The second narrative—“local quality assurance”—introduces the possibility of “clean” seed production models that build off the entrepreneurial spirit of smallholder farmers and farmers’ organizations and allows for more relaxed quality standards and informal trade. This approach seems to resonate with farmers, farmers’ organizations, and other grassroots associations already operating in this informal space. But it is also a potential vehicle for the widespread transmission of pests and disease.

These findings point to options that might not be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the need to recognize that while the VPC seed systems face similar challenges, there are also crop-specific characteristics, especially with respect to the risk of spread of pests and diseases. There may be ways to improve the availability of, and access, to quality VPC planting material through deliberated compromise to reach a more optimal trade-off between seed quality and broad access. Our research will continue to examine these issues throughout the coming year.

So, what’s next for Kenya? The continuing debate is a healthy sign, especially if it helps shape the regulations and standards for VPC planting materials, considers the risks associated with each crop, responds to the needs of different types of farmers, and takes account of the country’s ground realities.

Of course, bringing the different stakeholders to the table is not easy: both the stakeholder landscape and the interests of these stakeholders are dynamic. But Kenya’s constitution makes public participation mandatory to the policy process. That is a good sign. Or, as the Kenyan proverb states: “asiye kuwepo, na lake halipo” “if you are not there, your interest will not be taken.”

This work is undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). Implementation is led by CIP. Funding support is provided by the CGIAR Trust Fund contributors and the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research.

Margaret McEwan is a senior project manager at the International Potato Center (CIP) and a co-leader of the Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) cross-cutting cluster on access to quality seed. Netsayi Mudege is a gender research scientist at the International Potato Center (CIP). David Spielman is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of Technological Innovation and Sustainable Intensification flagship in Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).