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