Storage solutions CAN storage improve access to more profitable markets for small-scale farmers and traders IN UGANDA?

As we drive into the marketplace in Mbale in eastern Uganda the area is abuzz with people. Traders are selling their wares, people from the surrounding farmland are buying and selling their goods, animals graze on the small patches of grass nearby and cars kick up dust from the dirt roads as they drive by. It is hot and dry and the marketplace is packed with people at this time of day as traders jostle each other for space and compete for customers. The smell from the roadside restaurants drifts by as food is chopped and fried in small transportable stoves ready to be served to the hungry morning crowds.

One of the ambient potato stores which have been constructed in eastern Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

We are here to visit a newly constructed potato storage unit which has been built adjacent to the Bugwere marketplace in Mbale. The facility was constructed for use by the Mbale Potato Dealers Association (MPODA) in the framework of a research project implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas and funded by the EU with technical support from IFAD.

The ambient potato storage unit built in partnership with MPODA on land adjacent to the Bugwere marketplace in Mbale in eastern Uganda Credit: S.Quinn/CIp

In this part of the world farmers and traders have limited access to storage facilities and technology which can extend the shelf life of potato. Sprouting, rotting and loss of water in potato tubers all leads to physical and economic losses for both farmers and traders and so researchers are looking at storage options to help prolong shelf life and create more profitable markets

The key potato producing areas in Uganda include Kabale district in the south west and the Elgon zone in the east which comprises of Kapchorwa, Kween, Sironko, Manafwa and Mbale districts. Mbale, where we are today, is the central assembling hub for potato produced across the eastern districts. Potatoes are traded from Mbale to Kampala and other regions in the country including towns across the border in South Sudan and Kenya.

Potato traders sort and pack potatoes on the back of a transport truck at Bugwere marketplace in Mbale, Uganda. Potatoes harvested prematurely present very thin skins that make particularly susceptible to postharvest losses. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
A female vendor prepares potato chips to sell at the Bugwere marketplace in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

In this area, potato producers try and limit their losses by selling potatoes immediately after harvesting. This quick sale approach can lead to a glut during the harvest period and then scarcity of potato during the growing season. And this inconsistent supply can cause seasonal price fluctuations and can have a negative impact on farmers, traders and consumers.

During the harvest season, when there are abundant supplies, traders are often forced to lower their prices. Consumers might gain some short-lived benefits when prices drop but once the glut is over, scarcity of potatoes sets in again which pushes wholesale prices up. When wholesale prices rise, traders are forced to lower their margins in order to sell.

The members of MPODA at the official launch of the the ambient potato storage unit in Mbale, Uganda at the end of 2015 Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Farmers tell us that prices for potato at the farm gate during gluts sometimes don’t even cover production costs. During harvest, farm gate prices can fall to as low as UGX 200 per Kg ($ 0.06) while the supply shortage in the growing period can push prices to as high as UGX 1,100 per Kg ($ 0.31). As such some farmers make the decision to harvest the crop prematurely so as to sell before prices drastically drop.

The inconsistent supply of potato on the market affects the entire value chain negatively. Besides fluctuations in price, farmers can also find it difficult to find buyers when the market is flooded with produce. As there are currently no solutions for farmers to store their wares the produce spoils.

With the introduction of ambient potato storage units the RTB-ENDURE project team (Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses) are working to find new ways for farmers to store their crop and have control about when they take it to market.

Potato traders sort and package potato at the Bugwere marketplace in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
Female vendors prepare potato for customers at Bugwere Market in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

In Mbale, the team is working with MPODA and farmer and trader associations to improve existing pre and post-harvest practices in the potato value chain. MPODA worked with the management team of Bugwere market to get an allocation of land adjacent to the marketplace to construct the storage unit. The unit is managed by MPODA members with support from the RTB ENDURE team and will be used as an opportunity to evaluate whether storage technology improves the shelf life of potato and whether it can create opportunities for value chain actors to have increased control over when and for how much potato is sold.

The members of the Mbale Potato Dealers Association host a meeting at their offices next to Bugwere market in Mbale, Uganda, Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
Men and women of the Mbale Potato Association gather outside their offices which are adjacent to Bugwere marketplace Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

“MPODA manage the sale of potato - to a wholesaler or retailer. Once the potato reaches this central market, MPODA is then responsible for distributing it for different destinations in Uganda and across borders into South Sudan, Kenya and Central Africa,” explains Sam Namanda a researcher with the International Potato Center who is overseeing technical support to MPODA. Sam firmly believes that providing MPODA with the ability to store potato for longer periods will enable the association to increase and stabilise profits for farmers and traders as well as providing customers with a high quality and more consistent supply of this much loved crop.

In Uganda, current value chain practices result in two marketing windows over the year, each of about two to three months. Project researchers believe that the introduction of storage technologies can extend the marketing period to 9 to 10 months, depending on the original quality and storability of the potato.

The RTB-ENDURE project provided technical and financial support for the construction of four ambient stores in the Mt Elgon region (three at farmer association level and one for traders), each with a 40 to 60 ton capacity. A number of improved traditional stores have also been constructed to allow individual farmers to store 4 to 8 tons of tubers.

“In Mbale, where there is a large potato market (Bugwere), we are primarily working with potato traders. Many farmers bring their potato harvest there to sell. Traders receive the potato and then sell it to consumers or transport to other parts of the country for sale. So you can see there are two key actors in this area: the farmers in the highlands and the traders based in town,” Sam explains to me as we watch local traders sorting and weighing huge bags of potato that have just been delivered by a local farmer.

The members of MPODA gather outside the newly constructed ambient potato store in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
Potatoes are prepared and packed ready for transport to nearby towns for sale Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

The research project will see potato varieties evaluated for their storability under different conditions and the storage units will be tested for their economic feasibility and social acceptability.

The project will strengthen the capacities of farmers, traders, researchers and extension agents in ware potato pre-harvest and storage practices. And selected value chain actors will be trained in entrepreneurship, agribusiness and marketing skills to improve the quality and consistency in potato supply. “A key part of my work involves educating the staff we work with to understand the technology and the benefit it will bring. This means working with farmers and traders,” Sam tells us emphasizing that capacity development is a core component of the work. He goes on to say, “this involves improving pre- and post-harvest practices of the crop. We train staff on how to produce clean potato for storage and take them through the practices of planting, looking after the crop as well as disease and pest management. And how to harvest the crop with minimal damage as well as how to sort the potatoes and organize the store for optimal quality.”

Potato traders weigh and pack potato at Bugwere market ready for transport to other areas in Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
Potato traders sort and pack potatoes on the back of a transport truck at Bugwere marketplace in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Two Master’s students from Makerere University in Uganda are supporting the research component by studying how potatoes are being affected by storage and which are the best varieties to store and for how long. Another student is looking at the economic viability of storing and at how storage technologies can fit under current postharvest practices.

Sam and I sit down at one of the roadside stalls to have a snack before we hit the road again. As we wait for our potato chips to be cooked Sam turns to me and says: “This project and the work we do is all about getting useful, practical technology to the people that need it –that is the farmers and the traders and the people here in Uganda who rely on potato as an important component of their diet. We want to improve profits and livelihoods and give these actors more control over their lives.”

Potato chips being fried at a small roadside stall set up at the edges of the market in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP
Potato which has been sorted and packed on the outskirts of Bugwere market in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Before we leave, we drop by the MPODA office located next to the market. The association members are chatting with local farmers about their latest harvest and working out how and when the produce should be delivered to the storage unit. The discussion is lively and you can see that each actor is intimately linked to the other – a value chain made up of individual actors each doing their best to improve their trade. With potato such a vital crop in Uganda providing these farmers and traders with new technology seems like a smart way to invest in their future and the future of the potato industry in the country.

Potato traders sort and pack potatoes on the back of a transport truck at the marketplace in Mbale, Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Why this research is important

In Sub-Saharan Africa, root, tuber and banana crops are an important source of food and income. However, their full potential has not yet been realized due several constraints, including bulkiness and high perishability of the crops, poor postharvest management and lack of storage and processing facilities. These constraints result in high postharvest losses, short marketing channels and limited value adding.

Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses

RTB ENDURE is a 3 year project (2014-2016) implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas with funding from the European Union and technical support of IFAD. Its ultimate goal is to contribute to improved food security for RTB producing communities in eastern and central Africa, including producers and other value chain actors.

The team

We are working in Mbale, Kapchorwa and Kween districts in eastern Uganda, with firm contacts with traders in Kampala. The project is led by the International Potato Center (CIP) and implemented in collaboration with NARO-Buginyanya (BugiZARDI), Self-Help Africa, Makerere University, farmers associations in Wanale (WASWAPA), Kapchorwa (KACOFA) and Benet (MIFA), one traders association in Mbale (MPODA) as well as other private sector players.

Words & Images: Sara Quinn, Regional Communications Specialist, International Potato Center

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Sara Quinn

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