FFA GO: Africa – July 25, 2011

Potato Farmer Initial Meeting

By Team B (Tom, Elisabeth and Ashley)

We ventured a full 3 hours outside of Kigali to the northwest corner of Rwanda today, near the town of Goma. This is right near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lake Kivu. The purpose of our field visits today was to visit with potatoes producers in the province and help identify possible solutions to their common problems. Producers in the area work in groups of 20-30 individuals who use a practice called “positive selection” to selectively breed for desired characteristics in potatoes. As part of these plots, Non-Governmental Organizations also provide training in identifying potato diseases like bacterial blight and viral infections.

We learned the major challenges faced by these potato farmers are disease management, quality seed varieties, and marketing/storage of their crop. Disease management involves identifying harmful diseases when they first occur, so that treatment can be applied early. Farmers shared stories of noticing bacterial blight on one plant, and within a week, it had spread to the entire field.  We were surprised to learn that these farmers have access to and can generally afford synthetic pesticides similar to those in the United States. However, they cannot afford a sprayer to apply them.

Quality seed varieties are currently being developed here in Rwanda, as they are in the US. ISAR, the national agricultural research institute, helps to develop varieties with different traits that are then tested by farmers through programs similar to extension. These varieties are then used by the local farmers in the “positive selection” process described above to move closer to ideal varieties. Quality seed can help maximize yields as well as minimize a disease infestation which decreases the need for pesticides, always a cost efficient benefit.

We spent most of our time discussing the marketing and storage of potatoes. Farmers are currently receiving less than a fair price for their crop because of unfair manipulation by “middlemen”. These middlemen serve the important role of transporting and marketing potatoes to the Kigali and Congo markets. In recent years however, they have promised farmers a certain price, but then changed the price when the potatoes were actually delivered. Because these middlemen have few other options to sell/market their products, they are forced to take the price being offered.

A key solution to this issues that we suggested and discussed was a farmer owned and operated cooperative that serve as the middleman, thus delivering the best price to the farmers. Several years ago, there was a cooperative functioning in this manner. However, the cooperative was later found to be corrupt causing farmers to lose trust in the organization and the cooperative failed. Because of this, farmers are weary to start another cooperative, but a cooperative would be well structured to give the farmers the best price possible. Because cooperatives pool resources between the many farmers in a region, they would hopefully be able to acquire financing to purchase the necessary trucks/equipment to transport goods to the Kigali market. Instead of the middleman paying little to the farmers and charging higher prices in the market, the farmers would be capturing this as profit, minus the operating expenses of transportation and storage. We suggested that this route continued to be explored, as this would be an ideal marketing situation, if the farmers can overcome their distrust of the previous cooperative.

Tomorrow we will be in the region learning more about the “positive selection” process and visiting a Diffused Light Source (DLS) storage facility. We are looking forward to learning more about the storage of seeds and seeing if we can shed some new light on a step towards being able to provide these farm groups with adequate storage facilities. While we certainly do not have all the answers to these farmer’s challenges, we are hopeful to see how some of our ideas and background can help.

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