By Caroline Wambui
MAUA, Kenya, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A sweet scent filled the air as workers dressed in white gumboots, aprons, and hats mixed ingredients and rolled out dough at a modern factory in central Kenya, the only one of its kind in Meru County.
The dozen products made there, including bread, cakes, doughnuts, and crisps, all share the same main ingredient: sweet potato.
Owned and run by Meru Friends Sacco, a savings and credit cooperative, the facility in Maua town was established two years ago as a way to help people access nutritional food in a region where crops are routinely destroyed by drought.
The cooperative's members of more than 1,000 farmers were motivated by a UN report warning climate change and poverty were major threats to health in the lower parts of Meru, explained Patrick Mbaabu, the factory's general manager.
They wanted to find a crop that would boost climate resilience in the area while also addressing the issue of malnutrition, he added.
After first considering bananas and Irish potatoes, the farmers settled on sweet potatoes because they are known for being rich in Vitamin A and essential minerals, Mbaabu said.
In addition, the hot, dry weather that makes it hard to grow thirsty crops in Meru is ideal for the sweet potato plant, said Julius Inyingi, chairman of Meru Friends Sacco.
"The warmer the area, the faster the crop grows," he said.
Kenya's National Drought Management Authority and the European Union helped pay for the factory, which cost 40 million Kenyan shillings ($398,000), and also provide training for the farmers on how to run it and grow the potatoes.
As the farmers in Meru Friends Sacco urge their neighbours to grow more sweet potato, they highlight the fact that the under-rated plant is easy to cultivate — even in poor soil — and versatile, which adds value to the crop, Mbaabu explained.
Interested farmers are provided with drought-tolerant, disease-resistant vines that have been propagated for the project by the Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, under Meru County's agriculture department.
There is no accurate figure yet for the number of farmers supplying the factory with sweet potatoes, but their ranks are steadily growing as farmers are drawn by the extra income and a nutritional boost for their families, Mbaabu said.
After registering with the project last year, Grace Kiambi planted her sweet potato vines among the bushes of khat on her 0.5-acre (0.2-hectare) farm in Maua.
Growing the crops together means each benefits from the nutrients the other releases into the soil and also makes watering more efficient, Kiambi said.
Before the project, she would earn an average of 8,000 Kenyan shillings each month selling khat, a mildly narcotic leaf — today, she brings in nearly double that.
"Planting sweet potatoes has helped transform my life," Kiambi said.
All-Year Food Supply
Sweet potatoes are well-suited to the county's erratic rainfall, said Inyingi of Meru Friends Sacco.
The vines can be planted at any time of year and require little water, he added.
They grow fast as long as the weather is warm, so farmers are often advised to leave the roots in the ground for as long as they can and only harvest them when needed, he noted.
"That helps provide farmers with a continuous food supply, even when other crops have failed," he said.
Hellen Ringera, a nutrition coordinator for Meru County, said growing sweet potato could help improve health in the area.
She pointed to the county's latest malnutrition survey, carried out in 2014, which revealed a quarter of Meru's children were stunted — too short for their age.
"Besides providing a rich source of energy and nutrition, the project will also help increase household incomes (and) employment opportunities," she said.
Before they joined the project, farmers used to rely on brokers who bought their produce at "throw-away prices," said Martin Munene, agriculture director for Meru County.
Now they sell directly to the factory for 50 Kenyan shillings per kilogram, double what they got before, he added.
"With the sweet potato value addition, we are in line with the government's agendas of having a food-secure and healthy country while creating employment for the youth and women," Munene said.
The factory sells its sweet potato-based products and flours — all certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards — to local businesses and schools.
It produces about 3,000 loaves of bread and 320 crates of doughnuts per day, as well as flour, among other goods.
Although the factory guarantees the farmers payment within seven days, it sometimes does not make enough profit to also cover the wages of all the factory workers, Mbaabu said.
And demand for sweet potato products is higher than the current roster of farmers can handle, he explained, a problem the group is trying to solve by bringing more into the project.
At the same time, farmers often have trouble acquiring enough sweet potato vines from the Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, which is also struggling to keep up with demand.
Despite the challenges, in a country where many people can barely scratch a living from their fields, Kiambi, the farmer in Maua, said growing sweet potato could provide some relief.
"It has not only kept my farm productive throughout the year, but has also turned my financial life around ... and I now comfortably tend to my family," she said.
($1 = 100.4500 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Caroline Wambui; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)