Kenia: Kenyan seed potato producer Freshcrop Ltd inspired by potato cultivation in Ontario, Canada
Seven years ago, Chris and Ashley Gasperi planted four acres of potatoes on their idle land in Kenya.
Today, their company, FreshCrop Ltd., is one of Kenya’s largest certified seed producers, with thousands of potato producers under contract and now in the process of building a 20-acre french fry processing facility and biofertilizer plant.
FreshCrop Ltd. officially launched in 2019, and with mentorship from Ontario potato grower Peter Vanderzaag and the International Potato Centre, it has expanded into seed production and new variety trials using tissue cultures for apical root cuttings.
Why it matters: A Kenyan potato company plans to use knowledge from Ontario growers and operations to help its growers be more productive.
With no previous agriculture experience before planting the initial four acres, the Gasperis quickly identified and began to fill value chain gaps, including market and seed access for smallholder farmers.
"We ran into the problem one year; we had all these contracts and no certified seeds available. Kenya is producing less than five per cent of the demand for certified seeds ."
During a recent visit with family in the United States, the couple incorporated a three-day tour in Ontario hosted by VanderZaag.
They attended the potato research day in Elora, potato field day and trade show in Alliston and visited three farms to expand their knowledge and connect with growers and potential mentors.
"The techniques (Ontario producers) use as far as nutrient distribution, it’s a lot different than we do over there. There’s a lot of different aspects of farming I’m taking away from my visit in Canada that I can use instantly when I get (home)."
Ashley said the most useful lessons, such as a centre crevice on a flattened row to capture water and inputs, are simple and could be game changers for Kenyan management practices.
"Those little things are going to add up and really help increase our production and quality. Even Peter’s lab, that’s something we could set up. We’d have to buy the machine, but it’s something we need in our factory ."
If FreshCrop innovation falls somewhere between Vanderzaag, who Ashley said exemplifies the industry’s highest quality, and the Mennonites, whose production systems most closely reflect their own, she would consider it a win.
The Gasperis introduced on-farm mechanization two years ago, but it’s rudimentary compared to Ontario’s investments. The company has a few small tractors and a four-row planter.
"Most of what we do is very manual. We did import an automated (two-row) harvester this year. Before, we were doing all pick and drops. We’d have about 45 ladies walking behind, bagging the potatoes ."
A significant equipment takeaway was the greater efficiency that could be achieved by using a windrower, which they hope to add to their fleet in the future.
While some mechanization is good, automation isn’t the end goal, said Ashley, because of access to an abundant and affordable labour force and the desire to economically empower local communities.
FreshCrop employs 45 full-time and 150 casual day labourers on the farm.
"It’s giving people food and jobs, and it’s something that we can incorporate in our bottom line and still make a profit,” she said. We want to support jobs and do better for the farmers in Kenya."
The Gasperis host Kenya’s largest farmer field day in July, featuring agri-chemical companies, 15 one-acre potato demo plots, mechanization showcases and general education, which draws 5,000 farmers nationwide.
"We’re evaluating costs, efficacy, effects on yield, and then we’ll move certain products to what’s known as our semi-commercial trial ."
"A lot of these smallholder farmers are living day to day, crop to crop. If they try a product that doesn’t work … that can be detrimental for a whole season. It could mean their kids don’t get to go to school ."
Kenya has five main potato varieties, two table, one chip, and two fry types. Shangi, an all-purpose potato, represents 90 per cent of the market. FreshCrop has 17 ongoing variety trials seeking good chip and french fry potatoes.
"That’s mainly why we came [to Ontario], to research and find out what people are doing and what best practices are. So, as we get these varieties into production, we’re able to produce the quality needed for processability ."
There are similarities in management, such as fertilizer applications, but because of continuous rains, Kenyans depend heavily on foliar sprays while Ontario producers are moving away from them.
Both systems front load nutrients, but Ontario producers use a delayed release, whereas Kenyan producers need to maintain nutrition throughout the season, said Chris. He plans to trial plant spacing and input systems to see what might work in Kenya to address regional production differences.
With the addition of a processing and biofertilizer plant, the firm hopes to stabilize market pricing by providing a closed loop where a farmer can buy seed and agri-chemicals and enrol in a buyback program through FreshCrop. Currently, prices fluctuate from five cents to USD 1 per kilogram, and smallholders are often locked out of the seasonally higher price point.
"If we can offer them a consistent buying price a little bit higher than those five cents – move that up to 35 cents, where you can get profit, and then bring it back to our factory to create that circle, then you can make a huge impact in the industry ."