Sweet potato gets faster and sweeter

Research institute KARI has launched a multi-purpose hybrid sweet potato tuber that creeps four times faster than ordinary tubers, matures a month earlier, and produces leaves that are edible to humans, which is a world first for sweet potatoes, which currently produce leaves that are fed to livestock.

The new super vine, called Mucinya, was developed by KARI Embu, as part of KARI's mandate to develop more climate and pest resistant crops to improve food security. The vine has higher levels of carbohydrates and of Vitamin A, which has been driving sales of sweet potato, especially in urban areas, in recent years. And for the first time, the leaves of the vines, which are heavily endowed with Vitamin C at the same levels as the highly nutritious indigenous vegetables and spinach, can now be eaten by humans. This is an interesting departure from traditional vines whose leaves could only be fed to animals. “These dual purpose vines serves the food interest of the people and animals and is an emerging competitive cash crop,” said Mary Mwangi, a crop breeder at KARI Embu.

The vine also takes only two-and-a-half months to three months to reach maturity unlike traditional ones that take four months.

To fill up an acre of land, some 1300 pieces of cuttings are required to give yields of over 40 bags as opposed to traditional vines that require 10,000 pieces of cuttings to provide only 20 bags.

Sweet potatoes from these creepers also display various colours like orange, purple, red, and white.

According to the crop breeders, the vines do not require commercial fertilisers, inputs, and intensive labour to produce. They are suitable to small scale farmers doing mixed agriculture on small farm units.

The breeders have appealed to farmers to take up the new varieties which will allow them to earn extra income even as they focus on other crops “because you can plant these vines in between other crops since they don't compete for nutrients and keep soil aerated for better growth of other crops,” said Mary.

KARI has recently stepped up its sweet potato breeding programme, delviering the launch of varieties like KSP 004, KSP 20, K- Embu 10, SKP013 and Savayo.

This has seen a 72 per cent increase in production in the country over the last one year.

Together with rigorous farmers training on how to reduce post harvest losses, this has helped reduce household spending on food in areas where the crop is grown and increased income for the predominant subsistence farmers who grow the crop.

According to a market update released by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in April this year, national sweet potato output increased from 400,000 tonnes in 2010 to 690,000 tonnes in 2011.

Sweet potato is considered Kenya's third most widely used food after maize and potatoes. But it has long been clustered under the orphaned crops, along with cassava, amaranth and millet, attracting relatively little research and promotion compared to crops like maize and rice.

However, such crops are now attracting new attention thanks to their high nutrition, low input requirements, and drought tolerance.

Last year, the yield per acre of sweet potatoes increased by 60 per cent and there has been a 26 per cent growth rate in the national crop area, from 45,000 hectares in 2010 to 57,000 hectares in 2011, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The production volume of the crop is expected to continue registering steep increases based on the current unsatisfied demand.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter