Rose Kaunda: Redefining Sweet Potatoes farming in  Kenya

 Seliphar Machoni

In the fertile land of Kakamega County, there is a female farmer whose love for sweet potatoes goes beyond the ordinary. Her innovative techniques and dedication to value addition are reshaping local agriculture.

Meet Rose Kaunda, also known as the ‘mother of sweet potatoes’. She doesn’t just cultivate crops; she uncovers a tale of innovation, writing a new chapter in the story of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes farm

Rose’s day begins at 5 am, even before breakfast, as she tends to her farm. From tilling to weeding to planting, these tasks have been her daily routine since she was young. Her passion for agriculture has never wavered. I had the opportunity to meet Rose while she was busy weeding her sweet potato farm. Rose, an award-winning farmer from western Kenya, has a passion for sweet potato farming. She grows sweet potatoes both for commercial purposes and for personal consumption. In the process, she has also developed other products that can be made from sweet potatoes.

Rooted in the soil, Rose’s journey with sweet potatoes began with her parents, who used to plant them on a large scale. Some were for their own consumption, while others were for commercial purposes. After she got married and settled in Mumias West, Kakamega County, she continued planting sweet potatoes, despite facing opposition from her in-laws.

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The turning point for Rose’s sweet potato farming came when agricultural experts conducting a survey at her neighbor’s farm noticed her well-cared-for sweet potato vines. They were curious about her farming methods and why she dedicated a large portion of her land to sweet potatoes instead of maize, as is the norm in western Kenya. Intrigued, the agriculture officers approached Rose and asked her questions about her sweet potato farming. Impressed with her passion, they offered to sponsor her to attend a sweet potato training program to improve her skills and learn more about sweet potato innovations.

She explained that she learned about sweet potato value addition through agricultural training with experts from various organizations and seminars she attended.  “The inspiration for sweet potato value addition came from the seminars and trainings I used to attend. I decided to try it out because, at that time, I had a surplus of sweet potatoes, particularly the orange-fleshed variety, which had no market. People didn’t like eating this type of sweet potato because they found it tasteless. So, I decided to use it to create my sweet potato value additions.”

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Witnessing Rose’s magical transformation of sweet potatoes into different products such as chips, crisps, mandazi, half cakes, flour, and juice, she explained that this is another way to combat food insecurity in our country.

“I use orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to create value editions such as chips, crisps, half cakes, cakes, flour, and juice. To make sweet potato flour, I wash the sweet potatoes to remove dirt, grate them, and then dry the grated potatoes. Once the potato chips are well-dried, I take them to the posho mill for milling. With sweet potato flour, I can make half cakes, cakes, and porridge, which are highly nutritious, especially for children. The half cakes are particularly popular because they are delicious and sweet,” Rose explained.

Rose also mentioned that for sweet potato juice, she boils orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, smashes them, adds water, and then sieves and boils the mixture again to extract the juice. After that, it is ready. To add flavor, she suggests incorporating your favorite fruit flavors, such as mango, orange, or lemon.

“For crisps and chips, the process is simple. Start by washing the potatoes, then grate them. I use a grater since I haven’t purchased the required machine yet. Then, deep fry them in hot oil. Since I am an organic farmer, I use palm oil that I extract from palm trees. Once fried, the crisps or chips are ready to be enjoyed,” she added. Rose recalls that when she first started marketing her sweet potato value editions, her family and neighbors were skeptical.

“When I began marketing the sweet potato value editions and selling them at our local market, my neighbors and even my children were skeptical about it. I remember one day my son found me making half cakes to take to the market. He asked why I was wasting my time since no one would buy them. However, over time, as they saw the positive response to the value editions, their views changed. Even my community members became eager to learn from me,” she explained.

Rose’s innovations didn’t just stay within her household; they inspired her neighbors and community members, who were eager to taste and learn more about the value editions of sweet potatoes. It has attracted the attention of agricultural experts who visit her home to learn from her work and implement their own value-addition techniques.

“Many people have been inspired by my innovation. Experts from different constituencies visit me to benchmark my sweet potato farming methods. This recognition has also opened doors for more sweet potato trainings and increased my customer base,” Rose said.

Furthermore, community members who were initially disinterested in Rose’s innovation have now developed a keen interest in learning how to plant and create value-added sweet potato products.  “I now have a team of eight women from the community who I have trained in value addition. They have been instrumental in assisting me with preparing sweet potato flour, baking half cakes, and marketing my products. I am grateful for their help as I cannot manage everything on my own,” Rose noted.

One of the members of Rose’s group, Elizabeth Makokha spoke of how she has not only taught them the art of sweet potato value addition but also provided them with employment opportunities. “I consider myself fortunate to be part of this group. Rose has taught us everything, from growing sweet potatoes to preparing organic manure and adding value to our produce. Initially, we were hesitant about value addition, but now we are pioneers in the community. Rose has also employed me to help with marking half cakes, baking cakes, marketing, and selling our products,” Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth further explained that sweet potato value addition has significantly contributed to combating food insecurity, as the chips can be dried and stored for future consumption.

Rose expressed her delight in the positive feedback she has received from community members, particularly women like Elizabeth, who are eager to learn.

“Different women’s groups in the community invite me to teach them about sweet potato value addition. I bring samples of half cakes, crisps, flour, and juice to demonstrate the possibilities. I also have the opportunity to sell my products whenever I am called for a tutorial. Nowadays, I am even invited to ceremonies to prepare half cakes and bake using sweet potato flour,” Rose said. Irene Naimiyu, one of Rose’s frequent customers, started consuming Rose’s products and farm produce a year ago. She first learned about Rose at one of the Farmers Day events in Kakamega County.

At the event, Rose was teaching other farmers about sweet potato farming, value addition, and the importance of sweet potatoes. Irene was attracted to Rose’s products and decided to make a purchase. She bought juice, crisps for her children, flour, half cakes, and sweet potatoes.  Irene was impressed with the freshness of the products, especially the sweet half cakes. From that day on, Irene became Rose’s loyal customer. She simply needs to make a phone call, and Rose will deliver high-quality products and farm produce to her.

Irene also mentioned that since trying half cakes made from sweet potato flour, she has never gone back to the ones made from wheat flour. She prefers Rose’s half cakes because they are sweeter and tastier. A mobile app called “Viazi Tamu App” was developed by agricultural experts from Anglican Development Services (A.D.S). The main objective of the app is to improve sweet potato farming and provide training and empowerment to sweet potato farmers in Kakamega County, including Rose. The app also helps farmers market their sweet potato products and find ready markets.

“Alongside the farmers’ cooperatives and other agricultural organizations, we developed a mobile app called ‘Viazi Tamu App’ to provide a ready market for sweet potato farmers like Rose. The app allows farmers to sell their potatoes and value-added products online,” said Sam Koile, an Agricultural Expert from Anglican Development Services.

Rose’s personal growth story revolves around the cultivation and innovation of sweet potatoes. Despite facing challenges such as a lack of proper machinery for processing her products and the absence of approval from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), Rose’s determination and resilience have led to her success. “In addition to facing challenges in value addition, I encountered difficulties in making crisps. I didn’t have the necessary equipment, so I used a regular grater, resulting in crisps that didn’t have a good shape. Sometimes, they were rejected by the supermarkets I supplied,” Rose explained.

Despite these challenges, Rose is proud of the recognition and awards she has received through her sweet potato farming. “Thanks to value addition, I am now a nutrition champion for food security in the county. I was acknowledged as the top sweet potato farmer in Mumias West Sub-County and the second-best farmer in Kakamega County. I received a certificate as the second-best farmer in Kakamega County and the best nutritionist in Kakamega County from Food World,” Rose recounted.

The most memorable moment in Rose’s sweet potato farming journey is the aspect of value addition. It has opened up numerous opportunities for her and allowed her to train many people on value addition from one sub-county to another.

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Mr. Koile, an agricultural expert, stated that their organization, which promotes sweet potato farming and value addition with the support of the county government, is currently in the process of registering farmers engaged in sweet potato value addition with the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS).

“We want our farmers to be able to freely sell their products anywhere in the country, particularly those involved in sweet potato value addition. However, they require certification from KEBS in order to do so. This ensures compliance with government protocols and enables nationwide product sales,” he explained.

Other Uses of Sweet Potatoes

According to Rose, sweet potato vines can be used as vegetables, especially to feed children with low immunity. “Sweet potato vines can also be used as fodder to feed cattle. I sell them to my community members as vegetables as well.”  Plant Village states that the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and can serve as a basis for high-protein animal feed.

Environmental Friendliness of Sweet Potatoes

How environmentally friendly is sweet potato cultivation? According to Koile, sweet potatoes are particularly friendly to the environment as they can be used to prevent soil erosion.  “When there is soil erosion, sweet potatoes can play a significant role as a cover crop. They can improve soil nutrition by shedding their leaves, which fall and decompose in the soil. Additionally, they enhance soil structure, fertility, and break down hard soil layers.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that sweet potatoes have lower greenhouse gas emissions and water demand per calorie than any other staple crop.

Sweet Potato as a Climate Resilient Crop

In the western parts of Kenya, where weather patterns are constantly changing due to climate change, Rose decided to cultivate a weather-resilient crop: sweet potatoes. According to Koile, sweet potatoes have the ability to adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions.

“Sweet potato farming has various phases, some of which require rainfall, such as the planting phase. Once established, the crop can tolerate a broad range of climate conditions,” he explained. He added that there are short-term varieties of sweet potatoes, such as the orange-fleshed variety, which takes three months to be ready for harvest, and the Irene variety, which takes two and a half months. This means that these varieties are quick to mature and are able to withstand variable rainfall conditions.

“While the crop can withstand a wide range of climatic challenges, there are specific conditions such as extremely cold areas and flood-prone areas where it cannot survive.” 

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