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Potato Production in Africa – ‘Chips With Everything’

Potato Production in Africa – ‘Chips With Everything’

Dr. Peter Steele. Retired FAO Senior Officer, Rome, Italy. E-mail:



Potatoes in context

People have been eating potatoes for more than 8,000 years – but not in Africa. Originally from South America, potatoes were quickly taken up in Europe following the Spanish exploratory and colonial missions of the 16th century. And they arrived in much of Africa during the latter part of the 19th century with the early missionaries – bring their bibles and foodstuffs with them. Of course, the Dutch had taken the potato to South Africa that much earlier and at about the same time the plant was being introduced into Europe. The plant also followed the other early colonialists – French, British and Portuguese – but tropical coastal climates were not receptive to an Andean staple; in Africa the plant needed, for best, altitude and cold periods.


People always shift their foods with them when they move. The challenge becomes even more difficult when the preferred foods crops simply will not grow well in those new lands. Fortunately, this was not the case in the highlands of East Africa, and the crop has – in only recent times – become a highly popular staple. Rwandans, for example, eat >150 kg per capita each year – more than most Europeans.


Everyone is growing potatoes

Everyone knows the figures – production of food worldwide must increase of the order 70% during the next 50 years to match expanding populations, changing dietary demand and the needs of rapidly urbanizing communities everywhere. And this without stating the obvious – that there are already an estimated one billion people who don’t have enough to eat each day.


Production systems are required that will have minimum impact upon existing agro-ecological environments, yet continue to provide livelihoods for >40% global populations that depend upon agriculture. With these populations passing seven billion in 2011 and an additional 2-3 billion expected by 2050 (up from less than 2.5 billion in 1950 remember) the challenge will be one of feeding everyone on the basis, largely, of existing resources.


This is where potatoes come in. Much can be done to boost food security with expansion of potato production. Long a main food staple in the industrial countries production has, in recent times, shifted to the developing and transition countries. Of world production estimated at 374 million tonnes (Mt) in 2011 growers in Africa, Asia and Latin America produced around 190 million tonnes – about 50%. More than 40% of world production is produced in just three countries – China, India and Russia.


African production

On world-scale Africa is a small producer, but the reality of local demand and supply is changing this and production is expanding fast mainly the result of higher populations, crop intensification and higher production efficiency.


Over a period of less than 50 years from 1960-on production expanded nearly 10-fold to reach 17 Mt by 2007 – small by world output, but that’s just one indication of potential. The highlands and temperate climates of Africa are a natural home for potato growing – covering more than half the continental land area. This is exemplified by the domination of Egypt, Malawi, South Africa and Algeria as the top producers in terms of tonnage, but with yields that vary widely on the basis of husbandry and markets. At 34 t/ha South Africa has productivity three times that of Malawi, and five times the Great Lakes countries of East Africa. The potential is obvious.


Opportunities for expansion and for higher productivity

Agriculture continues to dominate in most countries in Africa but, increasingly, people are adopting the urban-based development models that come with industrialization, and this reflects in the choice and convenience of foods eaten. A shift from production agriculture typically means people moving into services, manufactures and tourism for the employment and livelihoods available.


Agriculture is intensifying, modernizing and mechanizing – and if this is fragmented on the basis of land available, levels of education and, importantly, the demands of people everywhere for higher standards of living, then the shift to potato production (and co-dependency with more traditional cereal-based foods) is simply one indication of the inter-connectivity of people everywhere and the strength of the private sector.


Modern communication industries have expanded across the continent – people have become aware of the opportunities that present themselves for boosting lifestyles, for exploring new opportunities and for making a reasonable living for themselves and their families. Potato production neatly complies with these lifestyles – people like the convenience of potatoes and the images that are projected and, in particular, the taste and crunchy nature of fried potatoes. Potato production will continue to expand in line with the industrialization of lifestyles.


Potato production is well-suited to the highlands of Africa and also to the cooler growing environment that features during the winter months in the sub-tropical regions of Southern Africa and North Africa. The other point to note is productivity and yield when compared to the rest of the world. Growers in the industrial countries regularly produce 40-50 t/ha. The best producers in Africa attain of the order 75% these yields, with median production around the halfway mark. The weaker producers achieve 15-20% potential. The reasons for this have long been known, but encouraging growers to adopt good agricultural practices takes time; and the constraints facing growers and national potato industries alike as they seek to boost productivity can be daunting.


Final note – in a word – ‘investments’

The East African Region may have enjoyed different colonial ownership for >70 years during the late 19th and early 20th centuries with mixed politico-economic and social management experience, but the reality of the five countries that make up the region today have much in common. The challenge for national governments will be one of attracting investments that will help focus upon the reality of agricultural development (including food security, livelihoods and more) and, importantly, help establish the institutional and physical resources required – providing power, infrastructure, finance, education, social stability and a confident private sector. Increasingly, this will lead to region-wide investment at the expense of separate national interests. East Africa is a case in point.


Box 1

Potatoes and livelihoods

The value of potato production to livelihoods cannot be over-estimated – take the example of Kenya. Potato production is second only to maize as a food crop in the country with estimated 800,000 growers cultivating 100 m2 to 2 ha with largely unimproved practices. Doubling yields to 15 t/ha would provide estimated 500 days and 65 days, respectively, of family and hired labour, and this would generate increased income >US$5,300/ha annually. It would reflect in additional earnings >US$7 million for the 30,000 householders involved.





Potatoes Fresh, unwashed and with a dusting of soil, they are the only root crop in the top ten global food plants that literally feed the world.



Smallholder production in Africa If all you have available are steep hills then terracing is a logical option when labour can be mobilized, and where the need to feed yourself and your family is paramount.


Mechanized production Mechanization with that gentle touch; for the ready-to-harvest tuber is relatively easy to damage. Then it won’t store well, process well or sell well.



Land development If you have access to sufficient water you can, quite literally, green the desert. This is the Nile in Sudan, and this is land that will produce mainly cereals for export; ware potatoes are an expensive way of transporting water.






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