Dedza and Ntcheu are the heartlands of potato cultivation in Malawi but, as BENJAMIN CHISAMA and CHACHACHA MUNTHALI write, new technologies targeting the crop could see the two districts blown out of the water.
Farmers in Kumbwani Village and surrounding areas at Thondwe in Zomba grow tomatoes as the be-all and end-all cash crop. But as Yahaya Mmadi, one of the farmers, observes, producing tomatoes is backbreaking husbandry.
For years, farmers in her area have watched with envy as potato farmers in Dedza and Ntcheu, hundreds of kilometres away, have harvested bountiful and profited for less intense work, while their efforts in tomato production have gone largely unrewarded.
Mmadi and other farmers wish they could try their hand at potato production. But, as Margaret Chiipanthenga explains, farmers in the area face an unsurmountable problem of changing climate.
“The potato is a temperate crop which grows in areas and/or seasons of low night temperatures of between 15 and 20oC,” Chiipanthenga explains.
Malawi has a high demand for potato, yet the only districts that produce it are Ntcheu and Dedza and parts of Nyika and Viphya highlands, says Chiipanthenga, who is a plant breeder and Senior Deputy Director of Agricultural Research Services in the Department of Agricultural Research Services (Dars).
To thousands of farmers across the country, who aspire to grow potatoes, this must sound like a death knell to their hopes of a better life through potato production.
All, however, is not lost.
Under the QuickGro Project, Dars and the International Potato Centre (CIP) are trialling new varieties of potatoes, which are poised to place farmers in non-traditional potato-growing districts such as Lilongwe, Mchinji, Mulanje, Mzimba and Zomba on an equal footing with farmers in Dedza and Ntcheu.
The project aims to release potato varieties which are not only high yielding, but are also heat tolerant, early maturing (70 days after planting), resistant to late blight and viral diseases, have desirable palatable traits as well as having a low dormancy period.
Results of the trials in those non-traditional potato-growing districts have shown promise that the crop could be grown on a wider scale to meet the rising demand.
“Our aim is to identify new varieties that can be grown in non-traditional growing areas such as Chikwawa, Mulanje, Zomba, Lilongwe, Mchinji and Kasungu.
“We are looking at places where we can produce potato to meet demand. That’s why we are trying to produce them in areas outside the cold areas,” explains Chiipanthenga, who is based at Bvumbwe Research Station in Thyolo.
However, besides high temperatures, producing potatoes in non-traditional environments faces challenges of its own such as increased pest and disease incidences as well as total crop failures which are both biotic and abiotic stresses in nature, she says.
When the project started out in 2018, 60 potatoes clones — developed by St Andrews University in Scotland — were under consideration, but the number has been whittled down to 15 clones after vigorous screening.
The 15 clones were selected for adaptability in warm climatic regions and trialled in Dedza, Ntcheu, Mulanje, Zomba and Mchinji. Ntcheu and Dedza acted as controls in the trials.
In March and April, Dars and CIP collected data from the trials during participatory variety selections of the 15 potato varieties.
At Thondwe, Mmadi was one of a group of potential farmers who were involved in the participatory variety selection at Makoka Research Station in Zomba.
“We selected five out of 15 promising varieties based on field performance, tuber size, number of tubers per plant and a palatability test that was conducted,” Mmadi says.
A similar exercise took place at Bembeke in Dedza, which involved Thanthwe Potato Farmers Club.
Members of the club identified five varieties as suitable for the area based on the short period to maturity, high yields, resistance to pests and diseases as well as palatability.
Gevazio Chiwoko, who chairs the club, cannot wait to have the potato varieties released for general use.
“We normally grow violet [variety of potato]. But we planted 14 other varieties this season and were given an opportunity to choose the variety that suits us. We identified some that are resistant to diseases and are suitable for us,” Chiwoko says, adding that their evaluation also considered appearance of the tubers as well as the taste.
CIP Manager of the QuickGro Project, Obed Mwenye, explains that the involvement of farmers is a critical step in the selection of new potato varieties.
“The participatory variety evaluation with the farmers is an important stage because it provides feedback to us breeders. Whatever we are doing, if farmers don’t accept it, no matter how good it is, farmers won’t go for it,” Mwenye explains.
As the new potato varieties mature within 70 days (compared to the more ‘traditional’ ones which mature after 90 days), Mwenye is hopeful this would enable farmers to grow potatoes three to four times in a year.
“One major advantage with the early maturing varieties is that farmers can start to eat even before maize starts tasselling, a lean period in most parts of the country and in which most households are in dire need of food,” Mwenye explains.
Not all the varieties performed similarly across the t trial sites, however.
Chiipanthenga explains that, when the trials are through, some varieties may be released for specific areas based on their performance and preference of farmers.
Only those clones which were selected across the board would be recommended for most districts.
“For varieties of crops to be released, we usually test them under farmer management for two seasons. This is the first season we have tried them on farmers’ fields to get their feedback,” she explains.
The new varieties are being farmed under winter conditions, with harvesting expected to take place in August. Data from that and the previous harvest will be analysed in September and October, with a view to releasing the varieties by early 2022.
The QuickGro project is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (from the Unite Kingdom) and is being implemented through a partnership with the St Andrews University, James Hutton Institute UK, Musindo Muliro University of Science and Technology of Kenya, Dars and CIP Malawi.