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.
In a media seminar workshop co-organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security in South East Asia (CCAFS-SEA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from 14-15 August 2014, sweetpotato caught the attention of the participants, mostly agricultural journalists and broadcasters in the Philippines.
Image Source: It's More FUn in Albay Blog
Until recently, sweetpotato, “camote” to the Filipinos, has been an undervalued crop. Some participants at the media workshop shared anecdotes related to sweetpotato. One journalist recalled that whenever he got low scores, his grade school teacher would say, “You should go home and just plant camote.” Another participant said that he associates camote with poverty. During his childhood, when they could not afford rice, they only had sweetpotato for their meals. These are common misperceptions about sweetpotato in the Philippines – the crop is “lowly” and often associated with underperforming, incompetent students.
Representing CIP during the media forum was Dr. Julieta Roa, a collaborating researcher of CIP-FoodSTART. She was also the former director of Philippine Root Crop Research and Training Center (PhilRootcrops), CIP’s national program partner in the Philippines. Dr. Roa enumerated several cases in the country where sweetpotato had played a crucial role in disaster recovery. CIP’s presentation gave the participants a clearer understanding of the importance and uses of sweetpotato – for both nutrition and food security.
As the other PMCA/MarketLink pilot area, CIP, PhRootcrops-VSU and local partners established sweetpotato as a critical staple food base for disaster-readiness. Different MarketLink activities were conducted to improve farmers’ livelihoods and incomes through value-added interventions to sweetpotato with products such as sweetpotato muffins, noodles, doughnuts, flour-based products, pastries, ice-cream, fresh roots packs, even handicrafts from dried SP vines. Consumer awareness was carried out through exhibits in Agri-Fiesta and Magayon festivals, and fashion show food feature, in addition to media promotion and advocacy. The program undoubtedly aided the province of Albay to be more resilient to natural and economic vulnerabilities. The provincial leadership of Albay is now proactive in making sweetpotato an important food crop for climate-smart agriculture, especially since Bicol is in the path of a major typhoon.
Sweetpotato wine and fresh roots complete with labels and packaging from Albay province
The strongest tropical cyclone in recorded history to hit the Philippines left the country with some 6,300 deaths and 31 billion pesos (708.3 US dollars) damage to the agriculture sector. Eastern Visayas, the home of CIP’s national program partner Visayas State University-PhilRootcrops, was severely hit. PhilRootcrops led or cooperated in the short-term response to the typhoon-stricken communities. Beneath the fallen coconut trees, or in open fields and on slopes, sweetpotato survived. Communities with fresh roots available did not have such severe food crises as those without. Sweetpotato served as local food supply until the relief efforts arrived.
Sweetpotato planting materials for distribution to households affected by the typhoon (Photo by:PhilRootcrops)
Distribution of sweetpotato planting materials in Southern Leyte after an orientation-appreciation symposium on RTCs for food security, livelihoods, and climate-smart farming (Photo by: PhilRootcrops)
CIP and PhilRootcrops targeted the victims of volcanic eruptions and typhoons from the provinces of Tarlac in Central Luzon and Albay in the Bicol Region as program beneficiaries. The multi-partnership program “Enhancing Research Utilization through Sweetpotato Livelihood Development in Disaster-Prone Communities” adapted the Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA) – the R&D method developed by CIP to stimulate innovation along market chains by enhancing stakeholder collaboration and level of trust. Known as the MarketLINK (i.e. Philippine adaptation), the program aimed to: (a) improve sweetpotato productivity and farm incomes of resource-poor farmers; and (b) address food insecurity by applying research outputs in exploiting market opportunities, and by training local partners in business development through the PMCA process . Interventions include]: supplying sweetpotato clean planting materials (CPM), improving farmer production practices, postproduction and processing innovations, as well as promoting sweetpotato diversity. Social marketing was an integral component, designed to change the negative attitude of many consumers regarding camote. The activities were carried out in international and local exhibits, agri-fairs and festivals, symposia, and even fashion shows, promoting sweetpotato products for health and nutrition, and livelihoods. The program was funded by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) from 2009 to 2012.
After the eruption, sweetpotato production areas were greatly reduced. A complex of sweetpotato viruses spread through all sweetpotato areas in Central Luzon; resulting in decreased yield and incomes among mostly smallholder farmers. Confronted with this situation, the program promoted the use of tissue-culture-generated clean planting materials (CPM) from Tarlac College of Agriculture (TCA); and C2 generation plantlets were produced by Mayantoc Cooperative as a CPM enterprise. CPM was used to develop off-season camote production in 14 lahar-laden ‘barangays’ [communities] of Concepcion, Tarlac; which then become sources of C3-C4 generation CPM for farmers in Tarlac, Bataan, and Pampanga. By the end of the project in 2012, the virus challenge had been dealt with; thus increasing the yield to at least 20 tons/ha, and incomes to at least 100% among adopters. Virus indexing was done by the Institute of Plant Breeding-University of the Philippines Los Banos (IPB-UPLB) using the CIP Elisa kit.
Using the PMCA/MarketLink platform, the program helped farmers and local entrepreneurs to identify market opportunities, and set up SP micro-enterprises, by providing training on processing and business aspects. The start-up value chains, such as sweetpotato wine, vinegar, candy, jam, fresh roots and flour-based products, require further business development services to improve facilities, packaging, and supply chain, if production and markets are to be sustained.
When the volcanic eruption had calmed down and the evacuees had returned to their homes, Typhoon Reming (Durian) swept across the Bicol, dislodging volcanic debris and causing mudslides that killed about 1,000 residents.
In Albay, in particular, farms, properties, and lives were lost; hunger was rife and livelihoods seriously destroyed. The agriculture sector was devastated; even sweetpotato was greatly reduced due to the hot volcanic flows. Early in 2007, the local leadership of Albay turned to mass growing of sweetpotato as buffer food during this crisis situation: three truckloads of planting materials of hybrids were shipped from PhilRootcrops-Visayas State University in Leyte. During the 2009-2012 PCAARRD-funded sweetpotato program, sweetpotato nurseries (with a total of 240,942 cuttings) were established by the provincial local government unit (LGU) in eight towns and three cities of Albay to provide quality planting materials for food, as well as livelihoods. After few months, ca. 256,700 sweetpotato vine cuttings were distributed to home gardens, LGU nurseries, Farmer Field School (FFS) demo sites and pilot school gardens in Albay.
Sweetpotato, the lone survivor among local crops after Typhoon Haiyan (Photo by: PhilRootcrops)
With the livelihoods and incomes of the typhoon victims badly affected, root crops, especially sweetpotato, were planted in coconut farm systems as part of the medium-term response. Sweetpotato and cassava planting materials were distributed to households by the LGUs, Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), Red Cross, and the Department of Agriculture, both for food and income. This posed a shortage in root and tuber crops (RTC) planting materials. To address this, VSU-PhilRootcrops and some LGUs north and south of Leyte Island province developed RTC nurseries in their stations and selected farmer-cooperators to supply continuing needs, and for disaster mitigation. Some local executives also support value-added RTC processing for income generation. VSU-PhilRootcrops leads the activities on monitoring, status of RTCs, planting material distribution, nurseries, capacity-building and nutrition awareness, and advocacy.
Participants of CCAFS-SEA media workshop piloting in the Philippines
After presenting the outcomes of evidence-based action research and the roles of RTCs in climate change situations, the media group created clamor and anticipation on new stories of successes and breakthroughs of sweetpotato and other RTCs as super foods and resilient crops. Appreciation of the media’s role in disseminating accurate climate change information was emphasized. Dr. Leo Sebastian, CCAFS Regional Program Leader for South East Asia, posed a challenge to the participants: “You have to make sure that our message creates outcomes and impact.”
The media event was instrumental in making the practitioners realize the importance of root and tuber crops. The workshop was also tailored to highlight the roles and contributions of each CG center in adapting and mitigating climate change. The organizers will replicate the media workshop across South East Asia, particularly in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Besides CIP-Philippines, other research centers such as IRRI, World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and WorldFish shared their programs and activities on climate change and agriculture. In addition, representatives from the Philippine government (Department of Agriculture and Department of Science and Technology) and NGOs (Catholic Media Network and Redraw the Line-Media Alliance) also imparted their own work and initiatives on climate change.
The International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners are breeding and promoting OFSP as a food-based approach to combat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and related health problems in SSA. Currently, about 32% of children in Africa under the age of five suffer from of VAD. The transition to OFSP has been a marginal change because the white-fleshed sweetpotato variety is already prevalent in many people’s diet. Our studies have shown that OFSP is highly acceptable to many rural African women, men and children and that integrated agriculture-nutrition education campaigns can significantly reduce the prevalence of VAD among young children.
Most of the varieties are being grown by farmers in at least one country, while the others are set to be released soon. A large percent of the varieties are important parents in breeding programs to improve levels of β-carotene, root dry matter, and resistance to sweetpotato virus disease in the region. Some of the varieties are landraces from African countries while others are introduced germplasm from the United States, South America, and Asia, and have been found to be adapted to particular environments in SSA.
The catalogue is arranged with one OFSP variety per page, with each page containing morphological characteristics, root attributes, and other major attributes along with consumer and processing qualities of the variety.
This catalogue is a fantastic reference for anyone working with OFSP in SSA. The information will be relevant to different stakeholders, scientists, development practitioners, extensionists, and donors.
The production of the catalogue was accomplished with funding from the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) project. Dr. Jan Low, SASHA project leader, allowed extensive travels to collect data from different countries, and provided valuable guidance.
Dr. Low is thrilled to be launching the updated version of the catalogue. “The updated catalogue is a clear reflection of the growing importance and relevance of OFSP in Sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the hard work and commitment of staff and researchers on breeding new varieties of OFSP”, she says.
The OFSP catalogue can be downloaded from the CIP website here. For information on how to obtain varieties, please contact one of the offices listed at the back of the catalogue or the CIP regional office for SSA in Nairobi, Kenya. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is helping launch the catalogue at the “Implementation of Seed Policy and Reforms for the Benefits of Smallholder Farmers” Seminar on September 3rd.
Dr. Maria Isabel Andrade (CIP Mozambique), Mr. Jose Ricardo (IIAM Mozambique), Dr. Gorrettie Semakula (NaCRRI - NARO, Uganda), Dr. Felistus Chipungu (Bvumbwe Research Station, Malawi), Dr. Laura Karanja (KARI-Njoro Research Station, Kenya), Dr. Martin Chiona (Zambia Agricultural Research Institute), Dr. Jude Njoku (National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike - Nigeria), Dr. Kiddo Mtunda (Sugarcane Research Institute-Kibaha, Tanzania), Mr. Kwado Adofo (CSIR, Ghana) and Mr. Jean Ndirigwe (Rwanda Agriculture Board, Rwanda) agreed to include their released or near release varieties into the new edition of the catalogue.
Various people in different countries assisted with data collection: Elias Munda in Mozambique, Agnes Alajo, Moses Okoboi, Joweria Namakula, Benjamin Kigozi and Mukwaya for Uganda, Dr. Putri Ernawati Abidin, John Kazembe, Precious Nyasulu and Miswell Chitete for Malawi.
The sweetpotato breeders made useful comments during their annual meeting in Rwanda (April 2013).
We deeply appreciate the efforts of the graphics team in Lima, Peru to make this catalogue visually appealing to the user.
Robert was the driving force behind changing the government’s position on sweetpotato, making sweetpotato a research priority in the country, largely replacing white sweetpotato with beta-carotene-rich OFSP, and disseminating strong OFSP varieties throughout east and central Africa. Large populations of east and central Africa would not have access to the benefits of OFSP had it not been for Robert’s research, mentoring, and persistence for the past three decades.
When Robert returned from his Master’s work at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos in 1986 he established the Roots and Tuber Crops Program at the Namulonge research facility. At the time, the Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture (UMA) had deprioritized sweetpotato in favor of other crops, despite the fact that sweetpotato was a major part of the Ugandan diet. The opportunity to use sweetpotato and particularly OFSP to fight VAD did not escape Robert. He and the CIP representative in Nairobi, Peter Ewell, requested UMA to support sweetpotato by developing a separate research program for it. This successful request opened the door to research funding that enabled the release of improved OFSP varieties in Uganda and central and east Africa.
Robert began his research and simultaneously began training and mentoring staff to further this research. The focus on sweetpotato breeding in Uganda resulted in a strong research team at Namulonge with regional on-job training for technicians and scientists. Sweetpotato breeders and technician from 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa came to Robert’s program for week to month long workshops devoted to improving sweetpotato breeding skills. By 2009, when Robert joined CIP, Namulonge was the sweetpotato support platform for East and Central Africa due to Robert’s investment in developing infrastructure and staff over the years.
Including OFSP in the farming and food systems began in Central Uganda in 1999 as a joint multi-sectoral effort involving over 15 different partners. Robert and his team conducted rapid on-station and on-farm trials of introduced and local OFSP germplasm that led to the official release of the Kakamega and Ejumula varieties in 2004 for deployment by the projects and consumption by communities. Since then Robert has developed 12 new varieties, including the high-provitamin A (b-carotene) OFSP. Some of these released varieties have gained importance regionally.
In the 1990s, CIP introduced OFSP approximately 200 clones as in vitro plantlets to collaborating SSA countries. In Uganda, Robert evaluated the received OFSP in different agroecologies. The clones were either not adapted to the growing conditions or were not suitable for local consumption; they had low dry matter content (DMC); were susceptible to diseases, especially Alternaria bataticola blight, and sweetpotato virus disease (SPVD), the most devastating disease to sweetpotato in SSA. Robert worked on a short-term goal of testing local varieties and introduced germplasm, releasing adapted varieties, and used crossing schemes in crossing blocks at Namulonge that included OFSP clones from various sources around the globe. The raw materials (the genes) for improving OFSP were sought from non-orange sweetpotato germplasm. The schemes had medium to long term goals which aimed at finding solutions to the major sweetpotato production constraints, namely, the major diseases mentioned earlier and sweetpotato weevils that cause up to 100% yield loss in highly susceptible cultivars during dry periods. As a further challenge, Robert had to combine these desirable traits with high b-carotene content in the same genetic background.
Robert succeeded in breeding for virus resistance, made considerable progress in understanding the underlying genetics of virus resistance, and also managed to incorporate the high dry matter content that people liked. He also started work with various teams to understand better the molecular and genetic basis for field resistance to viruses to enable more accurate and targeted breeding strategies to achieve high levels of resistance in progeny populations. Although to date there are no cultivars with durable field resistance under high weevil populations, Robert and his team have made some progress by broadening the sources of weevil resistance through local collections and screening for resistance. Specifically, the team identified hydroxycinnamic acid esters as the biochemical basis for sweet potato weevil resistance in the New Kawogo sweetpotato landrace he released.
Robert’s successes have been shared throughout the region. His program generated breeding populations (seed), which he sent to Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, and Burkina Faso. In 2007, 261,980 seeds were sent to these countries, representing about 40% of the seed produced by Robert’s program.