From drought-stricken eastern Rwanda, to highly acidic soils in the south and the heavily cold north, potatoes will no longer be a specialty of one region.
Local scientists have developed five new varieties of potatoes that have been tested in all regions and found to grow there. The team, working in a government research facility, have tested their finding since 2013.
Potatoes are a delicacy everyone expects on a plate at meal time in the form of “ifiriti” or fried potatoes. They can also be prepared in various other forms.
The problem however is that potatoes are very expensive in some regions – making the chips a costly affair. Had it not been for the government setting maximum prices, a kilo of potatoes would be going for as high as Rwf 500 in places like Nyagatare and Huge – when they cost Rwf 250 in source regions.
Rural Nyabihu district is the biggest source of the potatoes, followed in that order: Rubavu, Musanze and Burera.
Together, these north and north-western Rwanda districts grow more than 95% of the 2.3m tons of potatoes the whole country produces annually. It has earned the regions “bread-basket” tag.
This quantity makes Rwanda one of the biggest producers in this great lakes region.
For years, scientists have grappled with how farmers in other areas of Rwanda can benefit from the sector that has made overnight millionaires in the north.
Last month on January 24, the good news finally came. At ‘Potato Field Naming Day’ held at the Institute of Applied Sciences, University of Ruhengeri, a joint local and international team unveiled their work.
Five new potato varieties were born: Nkunganire, Ndeze, Twihaze, Kazeneza and Izihirwe.
Dr Rukundo Placide, Head of Potato Research Program of the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), also key participant on the new varieties told The Chronicles last week that they have tested the potatoes’ resistance to differing climate conditions.
Tests were done in Nyagatare district, in the dry east. Then Rwamagana and Kayonza – both between the capital Kigali and the east. They have a flat terrain, which rarely gets rainfall – and when it comes, it is way too much leaving destruction instead.
Nyabihu, Musanze, Rulindo, Burera and Rutsiro are the coldest regions. Their temperate condition makes them easy for agriculture. Potatoes have come from here for decades.
Studies done by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found soils in Nyamagabe district and neighboring regions to be highly acidic. Not much grows there, apart from tea, coffee, some wheat and very few other food crops.
All the new potatoe varieties were found to flourish here as well.
Karongi district is a mountainous region with an unusual type of soil that is said to be sandy. The potatoes did well here too.
In terms of production quantities, all the five new varieties are said to release between 34 and 40 tons of potatoes per hectare (tons/ha) for every season.
The potatoes that have been growing in Rwanda for many decades do not exceed 35 tons/ha.
But each of the new varieties has its own qualities.
Ndeze variety displayed rare quality for tasty crisps (what the locals call chips).
Dutch firm Winnaz that makes crisps from northern Rwanda knows the magic in this variety. It is not the only such producer in that area.
Tests involving restaurants and large hotels found Ndeze was the best quality for Fries (known locally as Ifiriti).
Ndeze had another big advantage: grows in less than 2.5 months.
The other four new varieties, and those that have existed before, were harvested after up to 4 months.
Twihaze variety for its part was received with excitement among farmers, says Dr Rukundo, because of its ability to produce much more on a small piece of land.
Twihaze is also said to cook and taste very nice when boiled. That means it is standard for a common delicacy called ‘Imvange’, mixed with beans.
While the other four varieties are still undergoing tests for the next 2years, Twihaze is already being grown by farmers.
So how did the researchers get here? Six years ago the government lab brought 42 potato clones from Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP), a global partnership fighting poverty and food insecurity.
From this large number of clones, complex tests identified five – which have since been developed for Rwanda.
Before the latest research developments, Rwanda farmers were growing Kinigi, Kuruza, Vikitoria, Twihaze and Kirundo varieties.