Friday, August 28, 2015

Low-cost Potato Storage Technologies in Afghanistan's Central Highlands

Bamyan Valley cover with potato crops. Aug 2015 (c) Rafael Merchan
Growing potatoes in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands is easy. The narrow valleys in the provinces of Bamyan, Ghor, and Daikundi abound with rich, meters-deep, fertile soil. Its surrounding mountain peaks accumulate a thick snowpack during winter, providing plenty of water during spring and summer.  Using an intricate system of ancient irrigation canals managed by the farmers, every corner of the valley gets its share of water for the thirsty crop.

Sure there are some practices that could be done better. Farmers tend not to select potato seeds, planting many varieties as evidenced by the different colors in the potato flowers. There are viruses affecting the plants (early and late blights, Black scurf, and others), and from time to time farmers get considerable pest damage. Broadcast fertilizer is often wasted, rows are also very wide (wasted space where weeds can take hold), and the ridges are sometimes too high to properly absorb water.

But despite these issues, potatoes in the Central Highlands grow very well. The problem, however lies elsewhere.  Farmers in this region don't have an effective mechanism to store potatoes over winter.

Instead, farmers either sell their produce during harvest, or bury the potatoes in large pits they dig on their plots. None of these options are good.

During harvest – late August to early October – the price of potatoes usually drops from $.65 (US)  before harvest to no more than $.10. While this is not unusual for agricultural products,  farmers in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable as they have few marketing opportunities to bargain for better prices or store the potatoes until prices come back up.

Potatoes damaged from frost (c) CRS
Those farmers who opt for traditional pits gamble with their harvest. When farmers open their pits in April/May, they often find half of their potatoes rotten or with freeze damage. This happens because dormant potatoes continue to 'breathe' during winter. Inside the pit the conditions get very hot and humid – a perfect environment for decay to take over the harvest. A 50% post-harvest loss is tantamount to losing half of your yearly income, as potatoes in region tend to be the only source of cash for farmers apart from goats and sheep.

In response to this, the organization I work  for has introduced a system that takes advantage of traditional practices, and improves it to reduce post-harvest loses. The Ventilated Improved Pit Storage (VIPS) – is a cheap and effective alternative to traditional pits. VIPS incorporates ventilation pipes and simple temperature and moisture management practices to improve traditional potato storage practices. Costing less than $10 (US), VIPS enable farmers to store potatoes until the following spring for seed, consumption, and sale (use this link can find more technical information about VIPS or watch a short video about it).

VIPS used a showcase in community in Chaghcharan. (c) CRS
The technology was introduced a couple years ago and now it’s spreading like wild fire.  Abdul Bashir, one of the farmers participating in the project, said that people in his village - Akhta Khana Bala, Chaghcharan District – were very skeptical at first. “We didn't think this pit would be any different from ours.” However, when they opened the VIPS in April, community members saw that none of the potatoes were rotten or frozen. Like Abdul Bashir, there are now more than 150 farmers in Chaghcharan district who have replicated the VIPS in their communities without project support.

VIPS Design (c) CRS/UC Davis
Promoting improved agricultural practices that are technically-sound, inexpensive, and culturally appropriate results in farmers’ trust. Farmers are too resource-poor to change their behavior for something they may consider risky unless they are totally convinced the technology works. Building their trust by showing how a practice can make a difference in their life is the best way to achieve agricultural development and increase the income of farmers.