The future of potatoes in Algerian desert
Situated on the northern borders of the Sahara desert in the eastern part of Algeria, the region of El Oued is an important area for potato production in Algeria. The region is developing into an important population centre in the south eastern part of the country.
With at present 750.000 inhabitants it constitutes the largest Wilaya of the country with 67 municipalities. Potato growing has only started relatively recently in El Oued, some 15 years ago, when the presence of the superficially lying aquifer and the mild and sunny winter climate where combined and led to a promising winter potato harvest. The potatoes are grown in one hectare circular fields that are irrigated by centre pivots, an irrigation technique that was locally developed and adapted. With its 33.000 hectares the region of El Oued has turned into the largest potato production area of Algeria with two harvests per 12 months.
The region, as the Algerian potato sector in general, faces a number of challenges that pose significant challenges for its further growth:
Climate Change and potatoes
Given the climatic and seasonal weather conditions, the virgin sandy soil and available irrigation water from subterrain (fossil) aquifers, the El Oued region has focussed on the production of potatoes and dates. But the climate is changing, temperature is rising, it is getting dryer and more extreme weather conditions occur. Measurements to prevent heat stress, water conservation strategies and farm management strategies are needed in the current production methods.
In Algeria, small farmers are planting manually which results in irregular plantings. Also, with manual planting it is common to place the seed on the side of the ridge facing south, not in the middle, that plants enjoy maximum sunlight. This results in green potato tubers when they grow out of the ridge. Planting is presently done in circles to allow for pivot irrigation, which poses difficulties for mechanic harvesting.
Up-oriented overhead pivot irrigation is the common system in the El Oued region using sub terrain (fossil) water that will not be replenished. The sprinkler systems are outdated, they have been out there for 25-30 years and, although they waste less water than gutter irrigation systems, too much water is wasted. Water tends to evaporate a substantial amount before reaching the roots of the plant.
The potato harvest is today mainly manual work using pitchforks and picks. For hand harvesting on a surface of a hectare, it takes more or less thirty employees for two days at a cost of € 600 / ha, using spade forks which have the disadvantage of damaging the tubers. Finally, the practice of the current harvest is expensive, slow, produce damaged tubers causing bacterial and fungal diseases, and the field in which the harvest is placed threatens to infect other fields. In El Oued the main problem is availability of (wo) manpower for manual harvesting.
Current storage practices cause huge post-harvest losses during the main storage. This is the effect of improper storage technology associated with poor farming practices.
The potatoes, mainly harvested by hand, are dropped on the ground to be collected, which is done immediately to prevent insects to appear who can damage the potatoes quickly. In El Oued no substantial storage facilities are available, so the potatoes are stored in sacs under shelters to await further transportation to the market.
The future of potatoes in the Algerian desert
The Agricultural Office of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Algeria organized a field visit and seminar on this subject in December 2015. Participants were the Postharvest Network, Wageningen UR, Agrico, Tolsma and Agri Holland Machinery from the Netherlands and representatives from the Algerian Ministry of Agriculture Regional Office and the El Oued Agricultural Chamber and a large delegation of farmers from all over the country. Objectives of this field visit combined with seminar were to:
- Determine the causes that limit the productivity in the potato sector in El Oued, Algeria;
- Come up with proposals for a more sustainable potato production, adapted to the El Oued specific situation;
- Come up with more suitable solutions to limit the post-harvest losses in the potato sector in El Oued and downstream in Algeria.
In the potato fields the following was concluded:
- Seed quality: The seed potatoes that are used for the potato production are of different origin and mixed quality, resulting in uneven growth of the crop and an irregular production. Introduction of certified seed and new cultivars with constant quality are needed for improvement.
- Water supply: Potatoes are irrigated by overhead pivot irrigation, wasting a lot of water by evaporation and loss of water between the plant rows. Switching to downward irrigation or even better to drip irrigation would save a substantial amount of water.
- Mechanisation: At the moment, a large part of steps in the production are done manually, which limits the production capacity. Mechanisation of the production is an interesting option to increase the production.
As for postharvest losses the visit led to two important conclusions:
- Post-harvest losses in potatoes seem at a significant scale, as expected.
- Awareness of the producers on the impact and scale of post-harvest losses has yet to be built.
- The visit and seminar were extremely well received by both the Dutch and the Algerian participants. The results and opportunities can be summarized as follows:
- There are concrete business opportunities, in particular in production and storage. The Algerian participants of the seminar were highly interested in these opportunities.
The Regional Chamber of Agriculture expressed very clear interest in a cooperation which was positively received by the Dutch Embassy. The next step will be to set up a trial station in 2016 where new varieties, new irrigation systems, new fertilizing techniques etc. can be tested and – if positive – be deployed in the region. This can also generate opportunities for other regions in Algeria as well as for other similar production areas in North Africa.