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January 07, 2012

Sweet potato gains new respect in East Africa

by Esther Nakkazi

Pauline Okello’s farm is jammed with customers seeking confectionaries she makes from orange fleshed sweet potato and quality protein maize flour. The farmer in Aywe, Gulu is doing booming business selling cakes, bhajia, doughnuts. She earns $8 from 70 cakes, and $14 from 70 doughnuts that sell out in two days. The orange-fleshed sweet potato is now a big time source of nutrition and income for farmers in the area.

“It is about time we elevated the sweet potato because it is a food security crop that most farmers are familiar with,” Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca) programme manager for knowledge management upscaling Dr Lydia Kimenye said.

The International Potato Centre (CIP) describes the sweet potato as a crop that grows in marginal conditions, requiring little labour and chemical fertilisers. It is a cheap, nutritious solution for developing countries needing to grow more food on less area for rapidly multiplying populations. It also provides inexpensive, high-protein fodder for animals.

The orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are an important source of beta-carotene, carbohydrates, fibre and vitamin A for children and breast-feeding mothers. Research shows that just about 250 grammes of the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes can provide the recommended daily requirement for vitamin A.

This is particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness and premature death among children under five and pregnant women.

It is these benefits that prompted Asareca to start a project to enhance farmers uptake and adoption of orange-fleshed sweet potato technologies. Three years on, Asareca and CIP have developed 11 varieties and a number of technologies.

“We are also testing a technology that will preserve the vines during the dry season and conservation of the root in the sand and then do rapid multiplication,” Dr Kimenye said.

The varieties exist with a wide range of skin and flesh colour, from white to yellow-orange to deep purple-fleshed roots, which are a rich source of compounds called anthocyanins that have medicinal value as anti-oxidants and cancer preventing agents. Cancer research is ongoing about these.

Patrick Makokha of Siwongo Drainage and Irrigation Self-help Group in Busia in Kenya started multiplying orange-fleshed sweet potato vines from less than a quarter an acre, that have expanded to seven acres in three years. He makes $290 a month from the sale of the potatoes and $195 from the sale of vines.

Multiplication and distribution of clean planting materials or vines is at all levels; individual farmers, farmer groups that manage secondary multiplication sites and national agricultural research institutes and supply-side partners such as extension and non governmental organisation staff that do the backstopping and monitoring.

About 10,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda — have been reached by the project with planting materials and training on the technologies.

The East African

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