Balancing life as a postgraduate student is a challenge

My name is Enock Rugut. I am a second-year masters student at Egerton University located in Njoro, Kenya, where I am working on a degree in plant breeding.

I am working on clean potato seed production under the Community Action Research Project (CARP) under the supervision of Professor Anthony Kibe, the principal investigator. My research project thus involves different activities – including planning, land preparation, acquisition of inputs and management of harvest to post-harvest handling.

The other activities include seed multiplication at the greenhouse level using technologies such as hydroponics and aeroponics. We also use in vitro techniques to multiply seeds in the laboratory.

The other major undertaking is putting up modern storage structures and, here, I am involved in all aspects, from costing to planning and actual construction. Most important, however, is training farmers to follow good agricultural practices. This happens at the university farm or through farm visits since the university is in an agriculturally endowed area.

DLS a simple, effective technique

One of the things we are introducing and teaching farmers about is the diffuse light store (DLS) concept involving low-cost storage technology. It is simple and involves storing seed potatoes in layers of trays or shelves in natural indirect light, ensuring adequate ventilation.

It is easy to construct a DLS with locally available materials like wood, mud and plastics. The reason for storing seed potato in a DLS include encouraging stronger, coloured and firm sprouts of potato tuber, avoiding weight loss and quality loss of the seed potato, and allowing time for lot inspection and labelling into classes.

There are three main basic elements in the DLK: light, ventilation, and protection. The light should be indirect, but sufficient to ensure short, firm and coloured sprouts. Long, white sprouts cause easy and fast shrinkage of the tuber. In DLS, tubers are arranged in layers of up to about 7.5cm to ensure that each tuber receives sufficient diffused light.

Ventilation is the most important factor in the store to ensure efficient and sufficient airflow to maintain the temperature and relative humidity for the tubers to breathe and respire. A lot of heat encourages weak sprouts. To manage ventilation or temperature regulation, the walls are spaced at least 7.5cm apart to allow air circulation.

Structures protect against pests

Intake doors are widely spaced and can be open at night for cool air circulation to ensure temperatures range between 12 and 15 degrees centigrade, combined with a relative humidity of not less than 80%. Relative humidity is sometimes maintained by misting and putting wet cloths in the corners of the store.

One major advantage of the store is that it protects stored seeds from pests such as rats and moths. This way, it is possible to preserve the seeds for four to five months, depending on the variety.

The procedure for storage is simple. It involves storing potatoes in boxes after they have been graded into sizes and classes.

The seeds can also be treated to prevent diseases post-harvest by applying fungicide to prevent fungal disease spread.

I hope to complete my studies in 2023 but, with the challenges of getting money and fees, I fear this might be delayed. However, my ambition when I complete my studies is to work as a plant breeder, improving plants, specifically the root and tuber crops such as the Irish potato and sweet potato.

The role of higher education

There are many things universities can do to encourage more research, where lecturers can engage students in research activities that answer current issues. Also they can do so by creating more scholarships slots, and ensure that courses are more favoured than others in terms of scholarships.

Universities can improve their links with communities through mapping of their needs, and then training them in techniques for improving their crop production. This can be done by setting up weekly farmers’ clinics. Students should then be given the opportunity to do the training during the clinics.

In addition, students should be attached to communities where they have to visit farmers every week or twice a week for consultation. Creating a community resource point where a university directly gets services and materials from the community farmers will also be a good way of collaborating with farmers.

The biggest challenges that postgraduate students face include availability of enough money for research, the mental health of postgraduates due to the demanding nature of masters studies that require one to be aggressive, and conflicts between student and supervisor.

Striking the right balance between work, social life and education is also not easy.