Some 135,000 smallholder farmers in Mozambique, around half of them women, are eager to plant vitamin-enriched varieties of sweet potato, developed in the country over the past 15 years to help alleviate malnutrition. The demand for the new varieties is the result of good yields, as well as a campaign to engage farmers and educate consumers about the benefits of the new crop.
The orange sweet potato, a rich source of vitamin A, was first brought into the country in the late 1990s, following reports of high levels of vitamin A deficiency, mainly among women and children aged under five.
A group of Mozambican researchers from different disciplines discussed setting up the Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP) initiative, and decided that investing in production of the crop would help address the problem of vitamin A deficiency.
The initiative quickly gained momentum because female farmers were already familiar with growing sweet potatoes, and the new variety could easily be distributed to farmers across the country, according to Maria Isabel Andrade, the initiative’s Maputo-based lead researcher, and Mozambique’s representative at the International Potato Center (CIP).
Fifty-eight samples, representing a wide variety of the crop, were imported from countries including China, Kenya, Tanzania and the United States. The first large-scale field testing was carried out by the south Mozambique branch of the CIP, a global research-for-development organisation focused on roots and tubers, based in Peru.
Financial support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) helped extend the testing further to additional parts of the country.
CIP’s initiative enabled the researchers to identify eight varieties possessing good yields.
But the widespread floods of 2000 caused the destruction of all varieties undergoing tests in low-lying areas in the worst-affected provinces. After the flood waters had subsided, the Mozambican government, in partnership with USAID, drew up a plan to distribute the eight top-yielding varieties to around 123,000 households.
“Coupled with other interventions, the orange-fleshed sweet potato has been a strong catalyst to progress.”
Arsenio Manhice, Leonel Muchano and Ntaryike Divine Jr
USAID then scaled up investment in the production of both the orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties and for another staple crop, cassava. CIP extensively promoted the two crops, with the aim of reaching half a million growers between 2000 and 2003, a target attained with the help of other partners, such as Helen Keller International in 98 of Mozambique’s 123 districts.
Apart from the devastating floods at the turn of the century, drought, recurring at intervals of three to four years in the country’s southern and central regions encouraged advanced research to produce new sweet potato varieties.
Fifteen strains were developed with initial financial support from Helen Keller International. According to project leader, Andrade, Oxfam GB intervened, funding the multiplication of the eight high-yielding, drought-resilient orange-fleshed sweet potato clones successfully trialled in seven of the country’s 11 provinces in 1999.
The home-grown varieties were distributed to 122,000 families in four flood-affected provinces. They were found to yield 20-25 tonnes a hectare, compared with the ten-tonne average of ordinary varieties. The sweet potatoes are also easy to cultivate and to harvest, compared with ordinary varieties, and they allow farmers to improve incomes, too, as demand for the vitamin A-rich potatoes grows.
Roots of success
Andrade attributes the success of the programme to the know-how and strong commitment of Mozambique’s scientists. In collaboration with them, she carried out during the research phase a wide range of lab and field studies to identify the most suitable varieties for Mozambique’s needs. And she says the expertise of local scientists’ could be tapped further to help solve other prevailing food problems.
The testing period, Andrade says, has proved that an integrated approach — involving researchers, small holders and other stakeholders in the orange-fleshed sweet potato market — could be a starting point for the continued nutritional education of farmers and rural communities.
The nutritional value of the orange-fleshed sweet potato has helped to reduce chronic malnutrition as well as drive progress in Mozambique towards achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) one to four, by: providing people with enough to eat; encouraging children to stay at school; empowering women; and reducing child mortality. Achieving the MDGs requires more than sweet potatoes, Andrade says. But coupled with other interventions, the orange-fleshed sweet potato has been a strong catalyst to progress.
But despite the successes of the orange-fleshed sweet potato project so far, other challenges to efficient crop production in the country remain. Among these, Andrade particularly highlights power cuts, low levels of mechanisation and poor irrigation schemes.
The project’s sustainability is another important consideration. Andrade adds that if at least 30 per cent of smallholders continue using the sweet potato after the programme’s end in 2013, this in itself would be a great achievement.
Manuel Mutua has been a smallholder farmer since the 1980s in the fertile district of Boane, in southern Mozambique, about 40 kilometres from the capital, Maputo. Until a few years ago, Mutua grew a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. But in 2012, he began growing orange-fleshed sweet potato, after signing a contract with CIP for the supply of plants for testing in his fields.
“I am very happy with the promoting campaigns, but I believe that there’s still a lot to be done as far as marketing is concerned, to open space for this new crop,” says Mutua. This is because most people are accustomed to eating normal sweet potatoes, rather than the new and nutritious variety, he says.
But he also believes there will be a slow change of hearts and minds, translated into a wider market openness to the new crop, and consumers eventually preferring the orange-fleshed sweet potato.
From the beginning of the initiative in the 1990s, partners such as USAID as well as the Mozambican government have provided more than US$1 million in funds. One of the most recent OFSP research programme has been coordinated by CIP under the National Institute for Agronomic Research, funded by USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, Harvest Plus and AGRA. Around one million farmers have benefitted from OFSP since dissemination started in 2000. The dissemination process is primarily done through the public rural extension systems and NGOs.
This article is part of a series Africa’s Minds: Build a Better Future produced by SciDev.Net in association with UNESCO, with funding support from the Islamic Development Bank.