Chibesa Chanda (29) from Ndola, Zambia, started his own photography business after graduation but recently he turned his attention to farming potatoes in bags as a way of making more money.
Chibesa wanted to grow potatoes to sell, but commercial potato farming has high input costs and Chibesa did not have the funds for it. Not a man to quit on an idea he was excited when he discovered that potatoes could be planted in bags.
“Growing potatoes in bags is a low cost exrcise and you don’t need a lot of land to do it,” says Chibesa.
A start-up loan from his father put him on the road. He used part of the money to buy Pentland Dell and majestic potato seed varieties, yellow-fleshed, brown-skinned potatoes popular for frying, boiling, baking and roasting. The remaining funds were used to buy bags, seed trays and compost mix.
Chibesa soon found himself applying the knowledge he had received through attending a workshop and reading up on the topic. He was thrilled to see the leafy evidence of tubers sprouting in the polythene bags. And as the plants flourished and grew, his sense of fulfillment grew with them.
In August Chibesa harvested his first crop.
Looking back, he says he cannot speculate on the outcome of failure. ‘Once I had set my course, failure was not an option.”
A GROWING MARKET
Previously, (white) potatoes were for higher income city-dwellers and expatriates. Now potatoes are widely consumed by all income groups with potato chips (also called French fries) a very popular food item. The addition of potato to the diet is seen as a status symbol in Zambian society, conferring upward social mobility on consumers. It is a favoured replacement of the traditional maize meal.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) states that major drivers of increasing demand are expanding urban populations, rising incomes, diversification of diets, and lifestyles that leave less time for meal preparation.
Currently, national production is slightly more than 35,000 tons per annum. Potato production is dominated by a few commercial farmers but medium-scale commercial farmers keen to take advantage of a growing demand have entered the market.
This presents a huge opportunity for capital and land constrained producers like Chibesa. “There is no question of the positive impact this technique of producing potatoes in bags to increase the resource base for small-scale producers,” he says.
PLANTING FOR THE BAG
According to Chibesa, potato production in bags is fairly simple. “The difference between production in bags and conventional potato farming is that bag production has the potential to take down the barriers that stop people from going into farming,” he says.
Chibesa said the best time to plant is February when daily temperatures are between 16°C and 27°C. “Plant the seed potatoes in conventionally prepared beds covered with grass to protect the sprouting tubers. After a week or two, tubers will produce shoots of up to 3cm.”
After this the farmer puts the shooting potatoes into bags with a soil and compost mix about halfway up the bag. As the potatoes grow and put out leaves the soil level must continuously be adjusted upwards. At this time growers should water diligently says Chibesa.
The rest of the process is pretty much the same way of managing and controlling pest diseases and seeking expert advice by daily observations of the health of the plants. Chibesa says the varieties he plants have greater resistance to pest diseases.
“Following the guidelines provided and seeking help from experts in potato management practices will typically give you a good harvest after three months.”
His experience in marketing his photography services has helped Chibesa carve a niche market for his produce. His customers are small-scale producers who want to expand and diversify their crop farming. He also has customers who want the potatoes in bags for their backyard gardens.
At K2 per young potato plant, Chibesa is certainly onto something that would make him the envy of many young people. “Only hours after my first Facebook post inquiries were pouring in from potential customers as far away as Lusaka,” he says.
Meeting the local market has been relatively easy as his customers pick up the plants from the family backyard.
To serve out of town customers, Chibesa says he is looking at establishing pick-up points in key towns.
CHALLENGES FOR POTATO GROWERS
Chibesa says small-scale producers require more support through improved access to production inputs, finance and markets. “With the right support, potato production presents a huge opportunity for diversification for small-scale producers who mostly rely on growing maize,” he says.
While primarily aiming at decision-makers, Chibesa also urged smallholder producers to adopt innovations in farming. “Instead of crying about the price of crops, especially maize prices, the answer lies in innovation. It is because of innovation that I am able to pursue my ambition of potato farming,” he says.
On the threat of cheap imports muscling out local producers, Chibesa advocated for measures to protect the local market.
Chibesa Chanda can be contacted on +260966433280