“Finding the right taste is very important,” said Dr. Maria Isabel Andrade, Sweet Potato Specialist at the International Potato Center’s office—a Peruvian-based organization working to improve global food security through improved root and tuber varieties and cultivation techniques— in Maputo, Mozambique. “In Ghana, for example, they don’t like their sweet potatoes to be too sweet because they use them to bake. Farmers won’t grow what they don’t like to eat. So the taste of the potato is very important.”
Dr. Andrade works closely with farmers in Mozambique to breed different varieties of sweet potatoes that not only taste good, but that are also able to withstand some of the harsh growing conditions presented by various regions throughout Mozambique and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Sweet potatoes must be drought tolerant, as well as pest and disease resistant and while many indigenous varieties have one or two of these characteristics, Dr. Andrade is breeding to develop varieties that consistently contain them all.
Dr. Andrade focuses on sweet potatoes because they can be an important source of beta carotene, an organic compound that helps to prevent vitamin A deficiency. In Mozambique, 69 percent of women and children under five are vitamin A deficient and this year, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Potato Center has launched the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) project in eight sub-Saharan African countries, specifically to ensure that farmers are growing sweet potatoes—especially women farmers.
“When women farmers, who are caring for and feeding the children, are growing the orange sweet potatoes—the ones that contain beta carotene—then we know the right vitamins are making it onto the plates of women and children,” says Dr. Andrade.
In Mozambique, for example, the Potato Center tested 64 clones in four different provinces in the country, and with the help of farmers in each region, 15 of these clones were selected for release this year. Each province was selected for the extremity with which it experiences one of the four following challenges: drought, cold, pests and disease. “We have to make sure that the breeding material goes to where the challenges are the greatest,” says Dr. Andrade, “to make sure that they will work in the most extreme situations.”
The five-year project is in its earliest stages and two provinces have only begun the first variety crossing. “We are establishing crossing blocks—that is when you let the sweet potato grow and flower and then cross it with another one,” says Dr. Andrade. “We are working with the farmers with the goal of teaching them to breed the hardiest varieties. Ultimately we want a population of sweet potato that can serve throughout sub-Saharan Africa, as well as on the local level.”
To distribute beta carotene-rich and farmer-approved varieties to as many farmers as possible, the Potato Center works with local NGO’s throughout Africa. “Last time we distributed sweet potato varieties we worked with 94 different local and international NGOs in Mozambique and they helped multiply the materials and distribute them. We kept the records.” The center also provides training to teach farmers how to prepare and process the sweet potatoes. “We teach women how to process the sweet potato into cake or bread,” says Dr. Andrade. “Women are in the home and they are the ones preparing the food for their children so we have to make sure they can turn the potato with all its nutrients into a meal.”
The goal for the next five years is to improve the food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of 150,000 families, says Dr. Andrade. “We are working towards having a batch of very hardy and very tasty sweet potatoes,” she continues. “And working closely with the farmers to make sure they are eaten, enjoyed, and improving nutrition because, ultimately, we are not breeding for us, we are breeding for the farmers.”
To read more about breeding vegetables with the help of farmers to improve nutrition and livelihoods, see: Listening to Farmers, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture, Valuing What They Already Have, Creating a Well-Rounded Food Revolution, Cultivating Food Security in Africa, and Homegrown Solutions to Alleviating Poverty and Hunger.