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[NEW DELHI] An international project to train Afghan farmers to produce and store seeds of a high-quality potato variety, a staple food in the country, has helped increase yields and farmers' incomes.

Between October 2007 and November 2008, farmers in Afghanistan's Baharak district were trained in the scientific management of potatoes, such as the correct times and technique for irrigation and fertiliser application; control of diseases and pests, particularly the Colorado beetle; removing diseased and abnormal plant parts, and cutting off aerial parts to prevent virus spread.

Other training included building storage bins buried partially underground to reduce losses; and methods of sorting, grading and packing potato seeds for marketing.

As a result the potato yields of 213 participating farmers rose to around 32 tonnes per hectare from the new variety, compared to around 10.5 tonnes per hectare. Their net incomes rose by around US$3,000 per hectare.

Current potato yields in Afghanistan are low due to a lack of high-quality seed.

"Use of disease-free seed of the improved variety, KCM (Kufri Chandra Mukhi), is the key to increasing much-needed potato production in Afghanistan but its availability is prohibitive. Thus, there is a pressing need to enable farmers to produce large quantities of seed and handle post-harvest management — including proper storage, and marketing of disease-free seed in the country," Javed Rizvi, country manager of the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), told SciDev.Net.

The project's success follows an initiative to improve mint production. The three-year ICARDA–Afghanistan project, funded by the UK Department for International Development — which ended in June 2008 — involved the identification, selection and multiplication of genetically superior mint strains from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Pakistan and Taiwan.

It set up 40 plots to evaluate the mint varieties and the best cropping techniques, and educated farmers on the best practices for growing mint, collecting and drying mint leaves, and extracting their aromatic oil for distilling and purifying.

The potato project was implemented by ICARDA and the International Potato Center (CIP) based in Peru in collaboration with Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, with funding from USAID.