The Kenyan operations of US fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken announced plans last week to start local sourcing of potatoes for its outlets from Kenyan farmers, after running out of the produce due to ‘COVID-19 induced global supply chain disruptions,’ a move that sparked fresh debate around the sourcing of local products.

For years, Kenyan farmers, who produce fresh vegetables and cut flowers for markets around the world, have called for international companies operating in the country to do more to source products locally, rather than import. This echoes calls in other markets across the continent.

The about-turn on supply policy came after a 24-hour heated online furore, triggered on the third day of 2022 when the chain admitted sourcing potatoes from overseas markets including Egypt.

A hashtag #BoycottKFC trended on Twitter for much of the day, with many Kenyans on social media questioning why the franchise was importing potatoes when the market was experiencing a glut.

“I find it hard to believe that KFC imports potatoes to make chips when in places like Nyeri each meal, except tea itself, has to have potatoes because they have no one to sell to,” said one Twitter user.

The debate also attracted official attention. Kenya’s largest producer of potatoes, Nyandarua County, through Governor Francis Kimemia, also took a swipe at KFC, terming its actions “insensitive to farmers who have put every effort into producing quality potatoes.”

In a statement, Kimemia estimated potato sector in Nyandarua County to be worth 100 million US dollars ( 10 billion Kenya shillings), with an annual production of around 550,000 metric tonnes.

Local innovations in supply chain management have seen chip makers like Sereni Fries thrive, pointing to huge opportunities in the sourcing of local fresh products like potatoes not only in Kenya and in other African countries.

Since it set shop in Kenya in 2011, KFC has been importing large quantities of pre-cut sliced blanched frozen potatoes from Egypt to meet the soaring demand for processed chips.

The KFC franchise’s regional boss, Jacques Theunissen, however, brought in a new dimension to the debate.

“All suppliers need to go through the global quality assurance approval process and we cannot bypass that even if we run out to ensure that our food is safe for consumption by our customers,” Theunissen explained.

Another twitter user implored why KFC, despite being in the market for a decade has not been able to train local farmers on its preferred quality standards.

“Why can’t they train farmers on quality assurance, value addition and international requirements to support local farmers?” asked the user.

But some Kenyans felt that a lot still needed to be done in the local market to boost quality production and prepare Kenya and other African potato farmers for international trade in the agricultural commodity.

“If our farmers are to be respected, we should respect what they produce by making quality products through value addition. We should control our value chain,” a user tweeted.

At 2.6 million tonnes annually, Egypt is Africa’s top potato producer followed by Malawi (2.2 million tonnes) and South Africa (1.9 million tonnes).

FAO statistics show South Africa and Egypt to be Africa’s biggest frozen potato producers with South Africa allocating 250,000 tonnes and Egypt 18 000 tonnes for fries and crisps every year.

Kenya’s National Potato Strategy (2021-2025) shows the current productivity of potatoes of between 7-10 tonnes per hectare (T/Ha), way below the potential productivity of between 30-40 T/ha, highlighting a myriad of challenges.

“The low productivity is because of inadequate supply of quality seed of preferred varieties, poor agronomic practices, high postharvest losses, unstructured markets, among other challenges,” according to the strategy document.

The most consumed variety in Kenya is known as ‘Shangi’ which is popular due to its fast maturity and shorter cooking time. But its yields have been in decline recently due to shortage of certified seeds.

While Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures show that potato production in Africa tripled between 1994 and 2011, the rise was largely due to increase in cropping area rather than an improvement in farming techniques.

Another study released in 2018 by the International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners, conducted from 2013 to 2016, shows addressing the yield gaps – especially on poor quality seeds – could increase production by 140 percent.

New improved varieties of processed industry grade potatoes are however emerging across Africa as farmers turn to varietals like ‘Markies’ from Holland, which has low water content, giving it high frying qualities as well as low post-harvest losses, despite its longer maturity period of 120 days.

Sereni fries Chief Executive officer, Humphrey Mburu, among the new and innovative investors tapping into the Frozen Chips market, expresses optimism for growth of the industry with introduction of high yielding varieties.

“We hope that when more farmers start to plant these varieties, we will start processing frozen chips so long as there is high production of Markies. Such varieties will place Kenya at a position of self-independence and cut reliance on exports from other markets,” Mburu said.

Agrico East Africa, the supplier of Markies varieties in Kenya says on its website that every year it transforms 400 tonnes of imported basic seed into 6,300 tonnes of Kenyan-certified seed potatoes, resulting in over 90,000 tonnes of potatoes.

“We supply the Markies variety which is a great variety for making chips and is in high demand with fast food chains locally and internationally,” said the company.

Urban demand for potatoes is growing at 7 per cent annually on a rise in urban population and changing eating behavior, according to Kenyan statistics.

Also affirming this trend is global market research firm, 6W Research, in its Africa Frozen Potato Market Report (2021-2027).

The research firm projects substantial growth prospects on the continent over the next six years, owing to the fast growth of the processing food industry, buoyed by rapid urbanization and increased adoption of western food culture by African youngsters.

“Rising needs for convenience in food consumption is the major driving force expected to proliferate the growth of Frozen Potato food market coupled with increasing disposable incomes of the consumers,” according to the report.

The report lists South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana among top countries that will drive growth of the frozen potato market by 2027.

Kenya aims to boost its annual production from 800,000 tonnes to 2.5 million tonnes.

This story was republished with the permission of bird, a story agency under Africa No Filter.

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