Rolling back poverty frontiers


Farmers jump deep in potato production


MASERU – The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, Lekhooe Makhate, says his ministry is ready to assist the Matelile Farmers Association (MFA) with their huge potato harvest this season.

Founded in 2018, MFA, ‘Marethabile Mokitimi, says they are members of the Potato Lesotho Association (PLA) – an affiliate of the farmers’ mother body, Lesotho National Farmers Union (LENAFU). About 100 residents of Matelile, in the Mafeteng district, have teamed up to form the MFA to help them fight hunger and escape the wretched poverty that is rife in rural communities.

And Makhate, said they are aware of the production of potatoes in Matelile, through the PLA. “We work closely with the PLA,” he said. But they only visited that association before the harvest could start.

He said they would direct the people who need the potatoes to Matelile so that the farmers could have a market. What the ministry needs is only the information regarding the extent of the potato production in the area so that they could assist those farmers with market access.

Makhate said one of the primary guidelines that the farmers have to follow is to do the right packaging, indicating that amongst the top fruits and vegetables that the country imports from South Africa, Mr Makhate said potatoes are in the list.

He said they will have to protect the market for Matelile farmers. This year the MFA received potato seeds and fertilisers from the Food and Agricultural Association (FAO), through the LENAFU’s assistance. The FAO provided the association with 600 bags (25kg) of potato seeds together with 1 660 bags of fertilisers.

They had planted the 81 acres of land, and Mokitimi said the these fields that they plant belong to them as the farmers. Before planting the potatoes, they used to plant peas and wheat as individuals for home consumption.

So far they have sold 2 000 bags (12kg) of potatoes to different buyers, especially businesses in the country but many were from the town of Mafeteng. More is yet to be harvested, while some have already been packaged and ready for sale. The potatoes are graded into extra- large, large, medium, small and extra- small, giving the buyers a choice of grades they want to have in their store.

After the potatoes are harvested, they are transported with a cattle drawn scotch-cart from the fields to the store-room where the grading and sampling are done. This is followed by the packaging process where the very farmers are involved.

Mokitimi said they have a massive and lucrative market of buyers who demand large potatoes over others. She said they are predicting to have 20 000 bags (12kg) of potatoes when harvesting is complete. 

Their challenge is that they have to fork out some money to pay for the store- room while their produce is still there. Also, they have a grave challenge of harvesting their potatoes using their cows drawing the plough. She said they experience a massive amount of wasted potatoes because they get damaged in the process of harvesting.

“If we could be assisted with planter machines and the harvesting machinery, we could experience better yields,” Mokitimi said, adding that because they are using the traditional way of harvesting – escalating their loss.

Refuoehape Chabalala from the Department of Agriculture Research (DAR) – The Horticulture Section, said producing potatoes is not as easy as some people would think. He said there is a lot of expertise and knowledge that is needed for one to produce the potatoes.

Chabalala said potato production is still low in the country despite their high demand and efforts by some farmers in Semonkong, Ha Mohale and Marakabei to produce their seeds and the endeavor by the PLA. He said the major challenge, among others, is that the country does not have breeders to produce early generation seed that is indispensable for high yields.

And the right choice of a cultivar is important before the plantation starts as some varieties take a long time to mature. Chabalala said farmers have to test and prepare soil before planting the potatoes so that the seeds could germinate well.

“No soil lumps as that would frustrate bulking of the potato tubers in the soil,” he said. He said the spacing of the crop rows in which the potatoes are planted is important depending on whether the crop would be rain- fed or irrigated. “Seeding rate under rain fed production is lesser,” he said.

He said the seeding depth is also critical when planting the potatoes and it should equal the diameter of the seed depending on the soil moisture level. “Under the less soil water content towards the soil surface seed may be placed deeper”

“During planting potato seeds do not need excess moisture because they could rot,” Chabalala said, adding that the moisture that the seed has suffices for it to germinate. At planting the fertilisers could be applied but carefully close to seed tubers because the potatoes have a weak rooting that could easily explore the nutrients. “Choice of fertilizer and application rate depends on soil analysis results,” he clarified.

Before the farmers could select seeds, it should be clear if they want potatoes for home consumption, sales or industrial purposes (processing). He said the ridging of potatoes is done within 4- 5 weeks after the emergence of crops. “During this time the crop is about 20 – 25cm high, ”  he added. At that time, the application of nitrogen (LAN) is also needed to help boost growth of the plants.

He said the purpose of ridging is to protect formed tubers from the sunlight, insect pests and disease causing organisms. He said the potatoes do not have to get sunlight because that reduces quality and could be toxic to the health of the people. It is important for the farmers to scout potato crops at least every two weeks so that farmers could monitor the growth of the plants, pests and diseases.

That helps a lot because the farmer could spot any disorder or diseases attacking on to the crops. After harvesting, Chabalala said the packaging is of great importance and the farmers have to be equipped with necessary skills at this stage.

He said the potatoes have to be stored in a cool, dry and well-ventilated place where there is no direct sunlight, and that paper bags and perforated baskets are preferable.

“If exposed to sunlight, they can change the colour,” he said, adding the potatoes could turn greener, something which is dangerous to human health.

Chabalala said the potatoes have to be graded according to their sizes during the packaging. If there is no immediate buyer of the potatoes, he said, it is needless to wash them because doing so makes their skins vulnerable to diseases.

Asked about ways to help improve potato production in the country, Chabalala said the Agricultural Productivity Program for Southern Africa (APPSA) is here to answer such challenges.


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