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Asrat Amele, a Potato Breeder in a Sea of Sweetpotatoes

Oct 21 2014   |   By: kathleen   |   0   |  

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Asrat has always been fascinated with plant breeding. He is trained in plant genetics and plant breeding, obtaining his PhD. from Wageningen University, in The Netherlands.

Before starting at CIP, Asrat worked for over 10 years in plant breeding and plant genetics. During a national program in Ethiopia, Asrat got his first taste of working with CGIAR. He was a lead bean breeder for a project sponsored by the Generation Challenge Programme. Asrat found out about an opening as a potato breeder at CIP through his university professor. “I competed for the opening and luckily I got the job.”


 

Starting with CIP in 2012, Asrat began working towards creating a new regional potato breeding program in Africa, at CIP’s office in Nairobi. Building a breeding program from scratch required some patience at the start: “Inadequate infrastructures and facilities for initiating modest medium scale breeding were some hurdles at the beginning, but through the support of the Global Genetics, the Crop Improvement Program, and the Regional science and Operational Program we were able to beat the traffic and move forward”, the scientist explains.

Asrat enjoys the scientific gains being made at CIP. From testing new potato varieties that combine both local African and exotic allies, to the biofortification breeding for iron and zinc potato varieties, to even the testing of the potatoes in African soil, they all appeal to him. Asrat remembers fondly his experience of working with farmers testing the Andean potato Phureja and watching the potato gain the farmers´ approval. “My preliminary impression from exposing farmers to these new potato types is that farmers are open to learn and test new types in their family system. The conventional approach of developing varieties that have the same appearance as those farmers are accustomed to growing may actually restrict the introduction and exposure of farmers to novel, attractive and adapted germplasm.”


 

To Asrat, CIP is a great organization where “ideas are thoroughly discussed with colleagues and translated to practice to positive impact the lives of people.” When people hear he works at CIP he often gets asked: Where is the new potato? What is the difference it brings to the lives of people? He happily explains how he is part of a program working for a better future.

Photos: CIP/S.Quinn

Combating Malnutrition and Gender Inequity with Potatoes in Colombia

Oct 15 2014   |   By: david-dudenhoefer   |   0   |  

The initiative, which distributed native potato varieties with relatively high micronutrient levels and provided training to improve farming practices and diet, was led by Colombia’s National University in partnership with Canada’s McGill University and University of New Brunswick. CIP joined as a third party to strengthen the National University’s potato breeding program and to build capacity for analyzing the nutritional content of potatoes.

CIP also provided input into the project’s engagement of smallholders, which included involving local men and women in the selection of the potato varieties that were distributed, and organizing meetings in which project participants discussed traditional farming practices, diet and gender roles. One of project’s priorities was to ensure a high level of involvement by women.

Teresa Mosquera, an agronomy professor at Colombia’s National University who coordinated the project, explained that it targeted five municipalities in Nariño that have some of the highest levels of malnutrition in the country, and where most farmers are members of the indigenous Pasto ethnic group, whose main sources of food and income are native potato landraces.

Teresa Mosquera with Pasto women and Canadian researcher David DeKoeyer at project closing ceremony
Teresa Mosquera with Pasto women and Canadian researcher David DeKoeyer at project closing ceremony

Leonor Perilla, who led the project’s gender component, explained that it included participatory research to identify problems and possibilities related to the roles of Pasto women and men in farming, food security, nutrition and the care of children.

“Women play a fundamental role in food security. They also play a fundamental role in incorporating new potato varieties into their family’s diet,” Perilla said.

CIP researchers trained and helped National University doctoral candidate Clara Piñeros to analyze the nutritional characteristics of native potatoes from the university’s breeding program – many of which were collected in Nariño – and contributed to the process of selecting the native potato varieties that the project distributed to farmers. CIP also sent the National University improved potato germplasm, which included clones that are the result of years of breeding for increased levels of iron and zinc, which will be adapted to local conditions and distributed in the future.

“For us, participating in this project was an outcome opportunity,” said Merideth Bonierbale, the leader of CIP’s Genetics and Crop Improvement Global Program. “We look for opportunities to work with more development-oriented organizations to ensure that the technologies we develop reach the people who need them.”

Bonierbale explained that the biofortified clones that CIP sent to the National University are intermediate products of a long-term process that began almost a decade ago, when researchers analyzed the nutritional characteristics of germplasm in the CIP Genebank and identified native potatoes with high levels of iron and zinc. The subsequent years of breeding have resulted in native potato lines with nutritional characteristics that are ideal for helping populations at risk of malnutrition – especially women and children.

Those improved native potatoes are also being crossed with CIP’s elite breeding lines, in order to combine their enhanced nutritional content with traits such as disease resistance, drought or heat tolerance and earliness (a shorter growing cycle). The progeny of those crosses will eventually be distributed to vulnerable communities in East Africa and Asia.

CIP researcher Gabriela Burgos, who served as the principal liaison with the National University, compared the project to earlier initiatives such as IssAndes and Acción Contra el Hambre, which involved nutritional characterization of the native potatoes traditionally consumed in the target areas, and getting improved potato material from CIP’s greenhouses out to rural communities. “One thing they all have in common is that they are contributing to improved health,” she said.

Bonierbale noted that such interventions not only improve the lives of rural families, they also allow CIP to established partnerships for future collaborations, and develop models that can be replicated in other regions.

Nariño farmer with improved potato seeds
Nariño farmer with improved potato seeds

“Nutritional enhancement is oriented toward target populations at risk of malnutrition. Reaching those people isn’t easy, and targeting a technology and delivery strategy to different populations involves quite a bit of institutional interaction and linkages beyond the research program itself,” she said.

Extensionists from the Colombian organization FUNDELSURCO, another project partner, taught the farmers better agronomic practices, and helped to organize meetings in which Pasto men and women discussed gender roles, nutrition and other pertinent themes.

Perilla explained that during the project’s closing ceremony, Olivia Colimba, a woman from the town of Guachucal who participated in some of those meetings, thanked the researchers for organizing them, saying that she had learned a lot and appreciated the opportunity to express herself. “The truth is that we all learned from those meetings,” Perilla noted.

The project has already distributed potato seed for two improved cultivars to approximately 600 farmers in five municipalities, and a second lot of potato seed is scheduled for distribution in October. Mosquera observed that participating farmers are expected to multiply seed and sell it to other farmers, so that the project’s impact will extend beyond the target communities.

“The hope is that these cultivars will be adopted by more communities, which is especially important when you consider that Nariño produces potatoes for other regions of Colombia,” she said.

The project was funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Department for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF).

A New Dawn for Potato Farmers in Eastern Africa

Oct 14 2014   |   By: saraquinn   |   0   |  

Soil health and soil fertility are important components in the production of quality potato. In the Eastern Africa countries of Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia farmers often lack the technology and knowledge to realize optimum production of this valuable crop. These gaps have led to poor yields in the region and devastation for some potato growing households and communities.

"The New Potato Dawn" is a documentary released by the International Potato Center (CIP) and produced by Arica Drumbeat Communications that showcases efforts by scientists on the management of the bacterial wilt disease and improvement of soil fertility. The scientists from CIP, Egerton University in Kenya, Ethiopia Agricultural Research Institute, National Agriculture Institute (NARO) Uganda, the University of Nairobi, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Boku University Vienna Austria relate how their research efforts have boosted production of quality potato by tenfold for both seed and ware potato in the region.

This project is aimed at increasing crop productivity and quality as well as to improve the income of small-scale potato farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia by improving soil fertility and crop management with a specific emphasis on the control of bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum) using participatory research approaches,” says Bruce Ochieng, CIP potato research associate.

Funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) the project is titled: “Soil fertility and soil health project: critical factors in improving livelihoods and productivity in small scale potato based farming systems” and was implemented across Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda from February 2010- February 2014.

According to CIP SSA Deputy Potato Science Leader Monica Parker, the project is works “to validate farming practices to enable farmers to improve potato yields through improved crop management practices, particularly to manage disease.”

In the region, CIP’s focus is on works significantly increasing potato productivity and improving the livelihoods of at least 600,000 smallholder farmers in potato growing regions of Africa through the use of high quality seed of robust, market preferred and biofortified varieties.

Video and audio slideshows are becoming a popular way to tell the story for science organizations. They are a powerful tool to tell the story behind often complex and difficult to understand agricultural research and science concepts. Video gives viewers an opportunity to step inside the project and hear the voices of the beneficiaries directly as well as to see the project in action.

Bruce Ochieng engaged Africa Drumbeat Communications to produce the documentary as a way to “document and showcase in summary some aspect of reality that is involved in soil fertility and bacterial wilt management. The video is a tool for the purposes of teaching, instruction or maintaining a historical record of the project, the intended audience being the donor, farmers, scientists/researchers and all the partners who worked in this project

Watch the documentary here.

You can find out more about CIP projects on potato in the SSA region here.

Credits:
Writing and production: Dr. Elmar Schulte-Geldermann, Dr. Monica Parker, Bruce Ochieng, Clifford Gikunda. Script: Dr. Elmar Schulte-Geldermann, Dr. Monica Parker, Bruce Ochieng, Clifford Gikunda, Sara Quinn. Script narration: Sara Quinn. Camerawork and Video Editing: Clifford Gikunda, Bruce Ochieng. Translation: Dr. Asrat Amele. Technical advisors: Dr. Elmar Schulte-Geldermann, Dr. Monica Parker, Bruce Ochieng, Sara Quinn. Music: Weliso Farmers Group, Ethiopia.


Improving the livelihoods of smallholder potato farmers in East Africa

The Ladies of Kibati

Oct 06 2014   |   By: saraquinn   |   1   |  

" CIP recently partnered with a small women’s collective working in Kirinyaga County near Mt Kenya. All of the Kibati Women’s Group members plant potatoes, maize, beans bananas and assorted vegetable on small scale farms. The women work together in a collective supporting each other, combining their skills, pooling funds and working to minimize risk. The ladies of Kibati The majority of the women in the Kibati collective have small household farms where they farm a range of livestock and agriculture. The women are venturing into potato farming as a new opportunity for the collective. As the second most important crop in Kenya for food security and rural prosperity, potato presents great potential for this group.
CIP Support The group approached CIP and requested for partnership to conduct on- farm research on potatoes and seed potato bulking. “Highland farmers have few choices for cash crops other than potato. Potato is the key food security and cash crop for smallholder farmers of the highlands, where the crop thrives. In potato-producing regions, annual consumption often surpasses 100 kg per person.” Monica Parker, Deputy Potato Lead at CIP Sub Saharan Africa. The project is evaluating heat tolerant potato clones, fertilizer, and late blight management. CIP hopes to assist the women to overcome challenges to potato farming including a lack of clean potato planting materials, soil fertility, and disease and pest management through training and education. Harvestable tubers are available 60 days after the onset of the rainy season—a significant advantage over grains, which require six to nine months. This makes potato one of the first crops that can be harvested in a given growing season making it an important crop for the “hunger months”.
CIP has set up four experimental sites within the group members farms. On each farm potatoes will be planted, cared for and harvested and will provide opportunities for the women to be trained in all aspects of potato production and nutrition. Potato is a cheap but nutritionally rich staple food for the fast growing cities of SSA, contributing protein, vitamin C, zinc, and iron to the diet.
To begin the journey, the women have planted potatoes on small portions of land (approximately 0.1 of an acre) and have utilized planting materials from the small wares potatoes which are available on the market. Since 2013 CIP staff have been providing guidance and expertise to the group for their first round of planting and harvesting and have committed to training the group members on potato seed production, processing and the general good farming of potatoes.

Post-harvest bags of potato are collected, counted, weighed and tagged to ensure that the project can be reviewed and improved for future harvests. There are plans for joint evaluation of these clones during active vegetative growth as well as harvesting time.
The members of Kibati celebrate with Daniel Mbiri (Research Associate, CIP) at the end of a long day of harvesting potato. Daniel Mbiri (CIP) believes that projects like this are important for the future of potato farming in Kenya and across Sub Saharan Africa. “Teaching small holder farmers about potato farming is crucial to ensuring food security in rural Kenya. These women are the new face of small scale potato farming which will be lifeline of farming in countries like Kenya in the future”.
Lillian is a vivacious woman with a powerful smile. She loves being a part of the group and sees its rewards both monetarily and also in terms of relationships and support and enjoys the camaraderie between the women. Lillian has purchased poultry and farm supplies with money made via Kibati business ventures. Evangeline is an enthusiastic member of the group. She is proud of the women’s accomplishments and gets great satisfaction form working hand in hand with other women from the local area. Being a part of the women’s group has given Evangeline the confidence to launch new small business opportunities and a great sense of friendship and support.
Pauline is passionate about her family, community and the Kibati Women’s Group. She feels proud to be a member and greatly values the strong support network that is provided by Kibati and the opportunity to make strong friendships and community ties through the collective. Purity is another passionate and enthusiastic member of the group. Purity sells clothing to help support her family and is excitedly venturing into the world of potato farming with the women of Kibati.
Margaret is passionate about farming. She runs a mixed household farm and supports the Kibati Womens Group to develop and grow its farm based activities. Margaret prioritizes the purchase of new equipment and seeds for the farm with money that she makes with the Kitabi business ventures. Jacinta is one of the longest serving members of the Kibati Women’s Group. Dedicated to the group, Jacinta gets great satisfaction from the strong relationships and friendships that she forms through the collective. Jacinta purchases supplies for her farm and home through the money she makes from the Kibati business ventures.

The Colorful Value of Potatoes

Oct 06 2014   |   By: severin-polreich-kathleen-preissing   |   0   |  

I often wonder why people tend to laugh about the potato and why it seems to have negative associations, – while this doesn’t happen with cereals or other staple crops. Nobody wants to be called a “couch potato” or a “potato head”. It’s also commonly and wrongly believed that eating potatoes leads to severe weight gain; while in Germany the proverb: “The most stupid farmers harvest the biggest potatoes” means something like “dumb people are often very lucky and no real skills are necessary to succeed.”

In the Andean region of South America, people view the potato differently because their lives have depended on the tuber for thousands of years. The uniqueness of the South American potato genepool lies not only in the co-existence of wild potato relatives with important enduring traits such as disease- and pest-resistance, or drought- and frost-tolerance. It is also found in the nutritional value of potatoes, which differs depending on the colors.

Thanks to the continued cultivation and consumption by Andean potato growers (‘custodian farmers’) these characteristics have not been lost. Unfortunately, these practices have not been acknowledged by “modern” society and there have been few opportunities for the custodian farmers to contribute actively to rural development approaches with their rich knowledge. Regions with the highest potato diversity are also the economically poorest areas with few prospects to offer the local youth.

“Chirapaq Ñan”, the rainbow route

Chirapaq Ñan, Quechua for ‘rainbow route’, was launched in 2012, as a collaborative effort of CIP’s Genetic Resources and a multitude of public and private stakeholders from the Andean countries. It aims to monitor long-term in situ conservation of potato landraces and to establish a knowledge network of custodian farmers across diversity hotspots from Colombia to Chiloe Island.

The hotspots of Chirapaq Ñan are a geographically limited area that currently contains unique potato landrace diversity. The different hotspots contain distinct potato gene pools with very specific biological characteristics. The following criteria determine whether the hotspot is included into the Chirapaq Ñan Initiative: (i) Distributional range of the species cultivated; (ii) Degree of endemism of the grown varieties; (iii) Geographic distance between the hotspots; (iv) Cultural diversity in and among the hotspots; (v) Local interest in conservation, in addition to the presence of national partners to take on leadership; (vi) Presence of any factors that are a threat to conservation efforts.

Potato custodian farmers from Huancavelica, Peru
Potato custodian farmers from Huancavelica, Peru

Monitoring potato in situ needs to take place at different levels in view of the output of complex interactions among genes/alleles, environment and socio-cultural aspects and decisions. In situ conservationists are not necessarily interested in a specific variety but rather in keeping the dynamics and evolution of new traits and adaptation processes in the genepool. Chirapaq Ñan seeks to answer how much diversity is necessary to safeguard a healthy genepool with its capacity to adapt to changes. The specific levels at which monitoring occurs are: Level 1) Genes, Alleles, and Chromosomes; Level 2) Cultivar and Species; Level 3) Landscape and Spatial Dynamics; Level 4) Collective Knowledge; Level 5) Threats to Diversity – Factors of Change.

The rainbow symbolizes the bridge between different points which are locations, custodian farmers, partner institutions, and disciplines involved in monitoring plant genetic resources in situ. The rainbow colors reflect the richness of the cultural, knowledge, genetic and morphological diversity that one encounters in the Andes. The rainbow itself is the result of interaction among different (and also contrasting) elements standing for agricultural reality in communities, rural development and education, decision-making processes and scientific approaches of conservationists, as well interaction among in situ and ex situ research. All these different disciplines work together, resulting in Chirapaq Ñan.

Chirapaq Ñan’s contribution to sustainable development goals

Chirapaq Ñan seeks to reduce inequality within and among countries by showing and communicating evidence of the important services custodians provide to society with their monitoring and conservation activities. By linking aspects of agrobiodiversity management and collective knowledge — highly relevant for local reality in Andean communities — to education in primary and secondary schools, we give the youth a chance to be part of Chirapaq Ñan; and life-long learning opportunities will be provided.

The improved participatory monitoring of potato diversity will help us to understand the evolutionary processes and to red-list varieties that help prevent the loss of traits, essential for achieving food security and improved nutrition. Particularly in the context of agrobiodiversity, women play a critical role because they often manage the seed storage and are responsible for food preparation and the well-being of a farming family. Their knowledge will be a central point of Chirapaq Ñan, and promoting their expertise is one of the initiative’s priorities.

As we are building this ‘rainbow route’, we keep in mind the Sicilian proverb that says ‘Cu mancia patate un more mai’ (‘Potato-eaters never die’).

Blogpost and photo by Severin Polreich, Associate Scientist – Global Program
Genetic Resources, International Potato Center (CIP) – s.polreich(at)cgiar.org
With the help of Kathleen Preissing – CIP Communications Department