Sweet potato: a special food security crop for health and wealth

The story is told of Nalongo Sekiguce, a widow and mother of 16 children, who lives in a hillside village in the Mukono district, a two hour drive from Kampala, Uganda.

Nalongo grew sweetpotato along with other traditional crops like banana and cassava. When she heard about the nutritional superiority of the Orange Fleshed sweetpotato, she planted it to feed her family.

She received her vines and training on good agricultural practices from extension workers trained by International Potato Centre (CIP) – one lesson she learned was that of clean planting material and how the vines from her sweetpotatoes could be multiplied and sold to others.

Nalongo became so good at this that once her cell phone number was announced on a radio station, she was inundated with calls for her vines.

Today, she grows just enough sweetpotato to feed her family but focuses on multiplying and selling her vines to other farmers as her primary source of income.

Adiel Mbabu, CIP Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa, describes Nalongo as his hero because she is such a good farmer and business woman and also because she took a chance on a new crop that was good for her family’s health and well-being.

Mr. Mbabu is therefore challenging other Africans to be like Nalongo by taking a chance on Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato.

“You know in Nalongo’s village they sing a song about it that says ‘the orange sweetpotato is the healthy one. It’s good for the eyes and the body’. This is true and it’s a great way to tell others about this nutritious crop,” he noted.

The CIP Strategic and Corporate Plan for the next 10 years is to reach 15 million households by responding to the strong demand for biofortified orange fleshed sweetpotato, working with national partners to generate new, locally adapted and nutritious sweetpotatoes and by accelerating breeding and multiplication.

“We can soon claim to have reached a milestone in our history by reaching one million households in Africa with sweetpotato – preventing blindness and stunting in children along the way. This is part of a 10 year CIP program to scale up and out Resilient Nutritious Sweetpotato in Sub-Saharan Africa,” stated CIP Director General, Barbara Wells.

Promoting new varieties in Ghana
In Ghana, CIP has set a goal of reaching nearly 500,000 households with resilient nutritious sweetpotato by 2020.

Former UN Secretary-general, Kofi Annan and wife, Nane Annan joined a round table discussion led by CIP and attended by a range of Ghanaian partners to discuss innovative ways to harness the power of orange-fleshed sweetpotato, which is rich in beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A that is critical to enhance children’s health and in reducing blindness. The crop is also rich in other nutrients and carbohydrates vital for children under the age of five and lactating women.

“The high Vitamin A content of sweetpotatoes is of high value to children and young infants, particularly in West Africa and in Ghana,” stated Mrs. Nane Annan. “Offering vocational training to mothers and youth and making use of marginal lands is a great model for the region.”

Ghanaian researchers have been deliberating on opportunities and strategies to enhance sweetpotato production along the value chain for health and wealth creation.

Dr. Stella Ennin, Director of the Crops Research Institute (CRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), describes sweetpotato as special food security crop in the face of climate change.

Her Institute has developed and released 12 high yielding sweet potato varieties, which yield 2-3 times higher than the traditional varieties.

The CRI-CSIR, as part of its vision, wants to establish a Sweetpotato Resource Centre “for stakeholder capacity building along the value chain”. This will serve to demonstrate best cropping and harvesting practices, provide technical backstopping to the private sector on commercial processing, raise the image of the crop and facilitate entrepreneurship in the sector.

CIP breeders will focus on developing a nutritious version of this sweetpotato to make it palatable to the Ghanaian taste buds and improve beta carotene intake.

“However, to get these scientific products in the hands of the smallholder farmers, it is critically important that we work closely with the partners who work closely with the target communities,” observed Adiel. 

He expects partners under the sweeetpotato value chain – from farm to folk – to work towards ensuring products and services generate health and wealth to the deserving communities in Ghana. 

This, he noted, “would be inspiring enough to turn it into another Nalongo story for Ghana”. 

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