A project leverage the untapped potential of sweet potato

A project to leverage the untapped potential of sweet potato to
improve the incomes and nutrition of farming families in sub-Saharan
Africa, has surpassed the ten-year target it set itself in just its second year of operation.

The project dubbed Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in
Africa (SASHA) now taking shape in Western province, seeks to
encourage mothers to get the health care they need and increase
consumption of the orange-fleshed sweet potato, a nutritional
powerhouse that holds the promise of reducing under-nutrition in
sub-Saharan Africa.
On visiting their local health facility for prenatal care, women
taking part in the project get vouchers for sweet potato planting
material. They trade their vouchers with local farmers for 6kg starter
packets of sweet potato vines. The farmers, in turn, are reimbursed by
the project at about Sh100 per 3kgs of vines distributed. Some vine
multipliers also have surplus planting materials, which they sell on
the open market. Achieving profitable vine multiplying ventures
increases the chances that supplies of sweet potato in communities
will continue to be adequate after the project ends.
“This project will improve the food security, nutrition, and
livelihoods of at least 150,000 families directly, with an indirect
impact on 1 million families in Sub-Saharan Africa in five years, and
the creation of conditions to reach 10 million households in 10
years,” explains Dr. Pamela K. Anderson, Director General of the
International Potato Center.
Along with white sweet potato varieties commonly grown in Sub-Saharan
Africa, SASHA is promoting the orange-fleshed varieties that are rich
in vitamin A. These varieties can significantly lessen Vitamin A
deficiency that threatens an estimated 43 million Sub-Saharan children
under age 5. Vitamin A deficiency contributes to high rates of
blindness, disease, and premature death in children and pregnant
In the first four months after the rolling of the project of
distribution, 836 women received the vouchers and more than 500
redeemed them for vines. Follow-up visits to the homes of 216 women
who picked up the vines found that 81 per cent had planted them,
meaning the project had immediately surpassed its first target of 500
plantings. But two years later the project has now reached 5,000 women
against a 3,500 target. “It’s a very remarkable gesture and I am glad
the women have really seen the need for this project. Knowledge is
what we were lacking in these area and we hope the future generations
now learn from our ignorance,” said Mercy Mdalla, a woman leader in
Western province actively involved in the SASHA programme after she
lost her son to avoidable vitamin A deficiency diseases.

To meet consumer and producer preferences, the project is also
developing a wide range of locally-adapted sweet potato varieties,
through conventional breeding, which are resistant to drought and
disease. Because conventional breeding has not been successful at
creating varieties resistant to weevils, which can wipe out 60 to 100
per cent of sweet potato crops during droughts, the project is
additionally using advances in biotechnology to develop
weevil-resistant varieties.

The project has also addressed a major challenge for smallholder sweet
potato farmers in accessing disease-free planting material in time for
the planting season. The program has increased the availability of
healthy vines for planting and hopes to explore novel systems for
disseminating planting material more cheaply, especially to women and
their families. By the time it winds up its operations, the project
hopes to have established three regional research centres in Kenya,
Ghana, Uganda, and Mozambique, to promote sustainable local breeding
skills and capacity.

“We will work with local scientists, partners, and stakeholders and in
close collaboration with the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) to
ensure that we strengthen the capacity to engage in sweet potato
breeding in Africa for Africa,” explained Dr. Jan Low, who will be
leading the project from the Center’s Regional Office in Nairobi,
Kenya. AGRA is currently funding doctoral training in conventional
breeding within the region as well as providing financial support to
sweet potato breeders in several national programs.

Sweet potato is the third most important food crop in East Africa in
terms of production and the fourth most important in Southern Africa.
It can produce better yields in poor conditions with fewer inputs and
less labour than other staples, making it particularly suitable for
households threatened by migration, civil disorder, or diseases such
as AIDS. Yet the potential of sweet potato to address these challenges
is largely untapped due to a lack of investment to improve yields,
market potential, and its negative perception as a poor person’s food.
The project is being funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation’s Agricultural Development initiative, which is working
with a wide range of partners to provide millions of small farmers in
the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their
yields, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves
and their families. The foundation is working to strengthen the entire
agricultural value chain—from seeds and soil to farm management and
market access—so that progress against hunger and poverty is
sustainable over the long term.
Written by Bob Koigi African Laughter