The hills of Chencha in southern Ethiopia, over 2,700m above sea level, are not a place where you might expect the Irish potato to be thriving underground. But in a country where most farmers work on small plots, providing just enough to feed themselves and their family, the humble spud is a popular crop.
In fact, it is estimated there are one million potato farmers in Ethiopia, planting approximately 160,000 hectares annually. The crop – known as the Irish potato across the region – is grown on mainly small half-hectare plots in the highlands, without fertiliser and mostly by women farmers.
The International Potato Institute, based in Peru, estimates that Ethiopia may have the highest potential for potato production of any country in Africa, with 70 per cent of its 13.5 million hectares of arable land suitable to its cultivation.
“We have a history of potatoes in Ethiopia,” explains Gebremedhin Woldegiorgis, senior potato researcher from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. “They were first introduced in 1858 and are an important crop for smallholder farmers who are the majority of farmers in the highlands.”
The problem in Ethiopia’s potato story lies largely with its seeds – the seed that is available to farmers is generally of poor quality, with less than 3 per cent of Ethiopian farmers having access to improved or uncontaminated seed. As well as this, farming practices are traditional, which means harvests are far below what Irish potato farmers reap from what they sow. There also has been little focus on tackling diseases such as blight.
So, technicians and scientists like Woldegiorgis in the EIAR research centre – based at Holetta, about 30km from the capital, Addis Ababa – are focusing on improved seed varieties, seed management and production.
“We are looking at the adaptability [of seeds], late-blight resistance, high yields and processing quality,” Woldegiorgis explains. “Which is why we are here working with Irish potato experts, learning about technologies and techniques to improve our potato crops from a country that is a leader in this area,” he says, gesturing towards the rows of potato plants at Teagasc’s Oak Park Crop Research Centre in Co Carlow.
Teagasc, which is responsible for RD, training and advisory services in the agri-food sector in Ireland, is working with the EIAR to share technologies and potato research. “We have an agreement to work together on potato research as well as dairy research,” says potato breeder Denis Griffen, who is based at the 225-hectare Oak Park, the national centre for arable crop research. “We have a lot of experience in researching and selecting seed varieties, in disease research such as late blight and other diseases, and this is all information that can be shared,” he says.
It is not the first time the research centres have worked together. They are both part of an Irish-led collaboration, the Potato Centre of Excellence, which involves partners from science, business and development sectors and Irish Aid. These include Teagasc, the Irish Potato Federation, Irish NGO Vita, and several other other European and Ethiopian administrative and research partners.
Launched in 2012, the centre also acts as the driver for the Irish Potato Coalition, an initiative involving Irish and international NGOs working to share knowledge across six countries – Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya – that account for four million potato farmers.