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Progress in potato production for Eritrea

TResearch Spring 2022

Potatoes – like the Electra variety seen in this picture – are one of the main crops consumed in Eritrea 

Teagasc, Irish NGO Vita, IPM Potato Group and the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) of Eritrea have introduced a new variety of potato seed – Electra – to Eritrea, successfully improving the country’s potato seed sector.

To learn more about the project and its impact on communities in Eritrea, we speak to Head of Horticultural Research at NARI Eritrea Medhanie Mehari, Teagasc and University College Dublin PhD Student Fitsum Ghebremeskel, Head of Programmes at Vita John Gilliland and Teagasc Research Officer Denis Griffin.

Potatoes have great economic and food security value for Eritrea, thanks to the crop’s nutritional profile, its popularity amongst consumers and the country’s favourable climate. But while the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) of Eritrea is committed to developing production, an inadequate supply of clean seed among other technical and infrastructural constraints have limited it.

To improve production, in 2015 Teagasc partnered with Vita and the National Agriculture Research Institute of Eritrea to create the Seed Potato project. Through this project – which sits within the Eritrea-Ireland Development Programme – they have given significant support to Eritrean farmers, bringing regular access to potatoes within easier reach of the average household.

What led to the establishment of the Seed Potato project?

Medhanie Mehari: Potato is one of the main crops consumed in Eritrea, but it’s productivity has declined due to viral potato diseases.

Fitsum Ghebremeskel: Over the past two decades, the MoA has launched seed potato interventions in collaboration with partners to increase the supply of quality seed. However, this was slow and inconsistent.

Medhanie: When other interventions didn’t work, a different approach was sought. The Teagasc model (one that is community based and research led) along with the consultation of experts was chosen as the best option. And so, the Seed Potato project was launched.

What was the project’s main aims?

Fitsum: Our aim was to import and distribute new variety seed, train farmers, supervise seed farms and construct storage for seed. And our end goal was to increase the supply of potatoes to the market, reducing the price and in turn increasing consumption.

What challenges did you face?

John Gilliland: An inadequate supply of high quality seed potato combined with a lack of improved potato varieties to meet demand is the main problem contributing to low potato productivity and production in Eritrea.

Diseases from insects, weak institutional capacity, low skills at farm level and low seed imports are all issues that contribute to the problem.

TResearch Spring 2022

Denis Griffin discussing potato flower pollinations with Gebremedhin Woldegiorgis from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research

What measures did the Seed Potato project put in place to address poor seed quality?

Medhanie: We tested and evaluated suitable climate smart varieties, imported quality seeds through contract farmers and distributed them to wider farms, and improved farmers’ knowledge of seed production and disease management through training and resources.

Denis Griffin: Former Teagasc Potato Agronomist John Burke specifically contributed hugely to the physical logistics of the seed system in Eritrea, making recommendations on the physical production of seed. 

Medhanie: We have a technical committee meet twice during the cropping season, to discuss issues and challenges and propose a mitigation plan. These solutions are then sent to a project steering committee, and those agreed upon are implemented immediately.

TResearch Spring 2022

L-R Fistum Ghebremeskel, Medhanie Mehari and Vita CEO John Weakliam at Medhanie’s graduation

What areas of Eritrea did you focus on?

Medhanie: In 2015 the project piloted at Zoba Debub and Maekel – two main potato-growing regions. In 2016 we expanded into a third region – Anseba. These regions, all located in the highlands, possess many potato farmers. As time went on, we realised a new area free of aphids – small sap-sucking insects that are the main transmitter of potato viruses in the country – was needed.

Denis: A high-altitude area was selected following a rigorous assessment, becoming the main area of potato seed production in the country. The first-hand seeds produced from this area – specifically, Electra – are then distributed to the other regions. This shift to a main site dramatically improved the quality of seeds produced and distributed.

Why did you choose to introduce the Electra variety of potatoes to Eritrea?

Fitsum: In 2013, six new varieties of potato seed – including Electra – were introduced from IPM Potato Group, and tested and evaluated in Eritrea. Electra stood out in its yield performance.

Denis: Electra is a Teagasc and IPM Potato Group-bred variety that performs strongly in all global agroclimatic environments, with robust high yield and a very good disease resistance profile. Suitable adapted varieties contribute hugely to sustainability by reducing input costs, decreasing losses and attracting new consumers to increase markets.

John: The training of farmers has been crucial to Electra’s success in mass production. In the past, low productivity of old varieties was in part due to poor knowledge of seed potato production practices. 

In what areas were farmers lacking knowledge?

Medhanie: Knowledge in potato seed agronomic management and disease handling was the main area that had to be improved at the onset of the project. This needed to be addressed so that the seeds provided would be handled properly.

Fitsum: There are two categories of potato farmers recognised in Eritrea – seed and ware. The seed potato farmers are well trained in potato agronomy, diseases and storage management, but ware farmers are behind in these areas. While they have good experience in traditional potato growing, they need further training so that they can pass on best practices to wider farmers and contribute to the improvement of the potato intervention.  

Were farmers using any bad practices that you had to break?

Medhanie: One of the main challenges from the start of the project was farmers’ use of unknown varieties through illegal importation, which is prohibited due to its risk of disease. This is now almost under control through intensive training of farmers and mass awareness using local media channels.

How did you find working with the farmers?

Medhanie: You have to listen and have an open-minded attitude in order to be successful. Our project is designed to be community based, so hearing from farmers and understanding their needs is crucial. The day-to-day contact with farmers helped us to build trust, and their local knowledge was indispensable in shaping the activities. It also gave the experts some valuable insights.

We’ve encouraged the sharing of knowledge, and farmers events have been organised where farmers use practical training to show other farmers first-hand the results of their interventions. Farmer-to-farmer seed sharing is also encouraged and observed to be beneficial.

What have the results of this project been so far?

John: The availability of quality seed potato has increased, in turn increasing the yield of intervened farms. This ample production has reduced the market price of potatoes, making them more accessible for consumers.

Farmers knowledge in key areas has also increased, as has the understanding of clean seed potato production amongst stakeholders involved in the seed potato system.

Medhanie: We take the feedback of farmers very seriously, and the response has been positive. They are satisfied with the variety of potato selected and the knowledge they’ve gained. Their lives have been improved through the sale of the quality declared seed to other farmers, and overall their income has increased.

What has it been like working collaboratively across different countries to achieve your goals?

Medhanie: The knowledge gained and consultation provided from Teagasc has been a game changer in the technical knowledge of potato seed production. Experience shared with counterparts in Ethiopia and other countries has been key in accessing different knowledge, and has enabled a wider understanding of the crop and its management for a broader audience.

Denis: Working collaboratively in Eritrea has taught me a lot about potato production in east Africa, and the challenges faced by growers, regulators and the industry in general. As a breeder this helps to inform me of the traits that are important in new varieties for developing markets such as this.

What’s next for this project?

Fitsum: I’ve recently been developing a road map for seed production in Eritrea. As potato production develops, this will allow a sustainable local system to be put in place, prioritising important next steps in the process.

Medhanie: The plan is to scale up access to quality declared seed, and establish an association of potato seed producers. We also want to look at enabling sustainable access to clean seeds and provision of early generation potato seeds through tissue culture, and look at strengthening the value chain.

John: Our memorandum of understanding has recently been renewed, and we’re all excited to work together for the next four years (at least), with a major strategic focus being to build on our achievements to date in developing a sustainable seed potato system in Eritrea.  


More than 300 farmers have been trained on quality seed production, inspection and storage.

6,350+ tonnes

The Seed Potato project has enabled over 4,100 farmers to access more than 6,350 tonnes of quality declared seeds.

20 tonnes per hectare

The quality seed provided by the Seed Potato project improved national potato production from 13 tonnes per hectare to 20 tonnes per hectare in most of the beneficiaries.

In good company

Why are you passionate about this research?

Medhanie: I like working with farmers and hearing their indigenous knowledge and experiences in mitigating challenges.

Fitsum: Every contribution matters, and I’ve met some great people along the way! It’s also a good opportunity to work alongside incredible researchers, development experts and practitioners.

Denis: This work is multidisciplinary, so tangible benefits can be seen and provide constant feedback as to what will be necessary in the future. 

John: This research is also a wonderful example of knowledge transfer, which is a cornerstone of the development programmes Vita undertakes with its partners, and how we work with our partners in Eritrea.


The Eritrea-Ireland Development Programme is funded by Irish Aid – Ireland’s overseas aid programme.