Observing farmers’ rights could lead to food sovereingty in Africa
Observing farmers’ right to propagate their own new seed varieties while keeping the old varieties patent-free could contribute to food and seed sovereignty in Africa. Dr. Daniel Maingi, the coordinator of ABN partner Kenya Food Alliance, outlines the importance of observing these rights.
A few years ago, I worked in one of Kenya’s Research Centers as one of the potato breeders. I realized that almost all potato plants generate or receive more pollen when the duration of dark and light are varied and better nutrition is provided. Seeds in the fruits of potatoes are called True Potato Seeds()(TPS). They can then be grown out in fields and nursery beds to give new varieties which are the offsprings of any pollen exchange. Such regeneration of new varieties through true seeds is commonly practiced in East Asia in community-owned varieties of garlic, onion, shallots among others.
Farmers’ right to make own new varieties while keeping the old patent-free
TPS are best for farmers to generate their own potato varieties at the community level. If such an activity is not curtailed, farmers would be the source of many new potato varieties. The benefits of inducing potatoes to flower, crossing and selecting at the community-level are twofold. Firstly, new farmer-owned varieties would be a continuous stream providing farmers with the needed traits at a cheap production cost. Secondly, TPS production is one of the best methods of providing smallholder farmers with seed potato free of degenerative pathogens especially systemic viruses. Pathogen and pest build-up in potato seed tubers (seed degeneration) is arguably one of the primary causes of low potato productivity(). Seed degeneration is also one of the major reasons why once-popular varieties such as Kerr’s Pink and Desiree were grown in Meru, Eastern region in Kenya, and were meant for the chips and processing industry. These varieties are now near-extinct in Kenya. Dutch Robijn (“Golovu or Golf”), first released in Kenya in the 1960s, is a variety that smallholder farmers sell to local markets and use widely for boiling, cooking, or mashing. Golovu’s surprising longevity among poorly-resourced farmers attests to the variety’s tasty qualities. Farmers have hung on to it despite years of degeneration, opting to self-clean and select tubers from plants that are visually disease-free for further vegetative propagation.
All these old potato varieties are held by poorly resourced small-scale farmers. They represent a big problem to entrepreneurial corporate-led value chains. Breeders’ rights and Patents protections have long expired on them and as such have no monetary value to patent holders. Profit-minded players would rather replace them with varieties with current Breeder protection rights such as Agrico’s Markies and Jelly varieties.
Corporatization of the Potato: Consumers appetite for fast food against sovereignty
In the last few weeks, a bizarre saga pitting the international conglomerate Kentucky Fried Chicken() (KFC) against a few urban consumers of fried-chips ignited the media and Kenyan Twitter (KoT) feeds for several days. At the heart of the debate were Kenyan consumers who were horrified that they were buying from a local franchise, but that imported potatoes were being used, mainly from Egypt and sometimes South Africa, over local potatoes grown by poorly resourced small-scale farmers in Kenya. I observed both government and farmers’ commentators. Local consumers were alarmed that their food was considered inferior or contaminated, therefore unfit by KFC standards. Explanations flew left and right, and ranged from lack of traceability() to the unsuitability of most local potatoes for the ‘high quality’ required for KFCs fastfood chicken and chips joints.
Lost to the debaters however, is the fact that most KFC chicken is also imported(), from the USA via South Africa under African Growth and Opportunity Act terms (AGOA). Representing a missed earning opportunity to small-scale poultry farmers in Kenya. KFC and the Kenyan National Potato Council have agreed to investigate if local potatoes can be grown to supply local restaurants and earn small-scale farmers a living from growing a select Dutch variety called Markies, whose Intellectual property rights (IPR) will be guaranteed by Agrico. Agrico describes itself as “a powerful force for innovation within the potato sector, creating, strengthening and increasing the sustainability of potato value chains”().
If Kenya is to address the issue of national food security, small-scale potato farmers must be protected from corporate takeover. There is need to have a policy framework in place to enable these farmers to continue producing food sustainably while also earning an income from the sale of surplus. An enabler could be provision of policies controlling importations and creating market for the local produce. The issue of healthy, clean, patent-free seed potatoes must be prioritized for its contribution to food sovereignty.
 Muthoni, Jane, Hussein Shimelis, and Rob Melis. “Alleviating potato seed tuber shortage in developing countries: Potential of true potato seeds.” Australian Journal of Crop Science 7, no. 12 (2013): 1946-1954.
 Gildemacher, P. R., Demo, P., Barker, I., Kaguongo, W., Woldegiorgis, G., Wagoire, W. W., … & Struik, P. C. (2009). A description of seed potato systems in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. American journal of potato research, 86(5), 373-382.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KFC Accessed Sunday, January 23, 2022
 Olsen, Petter, and Melania Borit. “The components of a food traceability system.” Trends in food science & technology 77 (2018): 143-149.
 https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/supply-chain-disruption-kfc-runs-out-of-potatoes-in-kenya#:~:text=KFC%2C%20which%20operates%20in%20Kenya,chicken%20comes%20from%20South%20Africa Accessed Sunday, January 23, 2022
 https://www.agrico.nl/en/about-agrico Accessed Sunday, January 23, 2022