The Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru are finalizing a US$1 million five-year renewable grant to support, maintain, conserve and make available sweet potato varieties.
Sweet potatoes produce more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice or cassava. Research in Uganda has shown that sweet potato is effective in preventing vitamin A deficiency, which is a major cause of sickness and death among young children in Africa. Esther Nakkazi spoke to Dr. Robert Mwanga the sweet potato breeder for sub-Saharan Africa at International Potato Center about it.
1. Why the sweet potato and not another crop for this grant?
Sweet potato is a major food crop yet it has had little funding for research and development compared to other major staples. Its contribution to food and nutrition security in the developing world is increasingly being recognized. Conserving available farmers’ varieties is urgent for exploitation for traits such as drought tolerance in the face of climate change.
2. Will a particular type of sweet potato be promoted in sub-Saharan Africa under the project?
Each active nationals sweet potato program conducts experiments on its sweet potato breeding materials or ‘varieties’ to select the best performing and preferred varieties for farmers, and the market. In general it is desirable for countries to promote high yielding varieties which have advantages for example high in beta-carotene (Vitamin A) to reduce the high prevalence of vitamin deficiency on the continent; varieties with high resistance to weevils, because if weevils are not controlled there will be total loss of storage roots; varieties with resistance to diseases such as sweet potato virus disease and Alternaria blight which can be devastating to the crop, and varieties with drought tolerance to obtain substantial root yields under harsh drought conditions.
3. Sweet potatoes have several flaws like perishability. What sort of technologies will the project develop to address these?
This project addresses constraints to do with conservation of farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of the cultivated sweet potato. Constraints (flaws) such as perishability and processing quality can be addressed indirectly by this project by conserving sweet potato varieties, which have such characteristics, which are important to farmers and consumers. Farmers can use varieties with the desirable characteristics directly as varieties or in breeding by research institutes to produce new improved varieties.
4. What will be the role of local institutions you will work with? Which ones are you targeting in Uganda, Rwanda?
In general with other CIP projects, the local institutions collaborate with CIP as partners to accomplish the goals of the projects. In Uganda on this project, the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) is the partner. In Rwanda, Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), Southern Agriculture Zone Division (formerly ISAR at Rubona), hosts our related projects. When activities on this project are extended to Rwanda RAB will be the partner.
5. How will the project enable the smallholder farmers who grow sweet potatoes improve their incomes?
CIP works with national programs to improve the farmers’ varieties in different countries. The national sweet potato programs can access sweet potato varieties from CIP/Lima or the regional Sub-Saharan Africa offices. The national programs can use those varieties directly or use them in their breeding programs to improve their local varieties to produce improved varieties better suited for the market and home consumption or for livestock feed or processing. Improved varieties in terms of nutrition -high beta-carotene or Vitamin A-, and yield can lead to self-sufficiency for food and sell of excess leading to improved nutrition and income.
6. What will this project add to cancer research on the sweet potato?
This project is not directly working on cancer research. Sweet potato, particularly varieties with purple-fleshed roots are a rich source of compounds called anthocyanins, which have medicinal value as anti-oxidants and cancer preventing agents. Linkage of this project to any potential project on cancer research would be to provide appropriate sweet potato germplasm if required.
7. What challenges do you envisage with this project?
Collection of sweet potato varieties from countries where there are unique farmers’ varieties, but resources are limiting for those countries to collect those varieties for long-term conservation. Some countries may not have realized the threat of loss of sweet potato varieties due to different factors such wars, floods, drought and climate change, so may not see the urgency of conservation, especially long term conservation.
Also published on Africa STI http://www.africasti.com/interview/us-1-million-to-save-the-sweet-potato-in-perpetuity