Ensuring a  Sustainable Supply of Quality Sweetpotato Planting Material

Funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Region: Sub-Saharan Africa

As CIP and partners breed resilient and nutritious sweetpotato varieties and work to get millions of African families growing and eating them, ensuring that there is enough quality planting material available for farmers is both a priority and a challenge.

CIP has facilitated the creation of supply chains that extend from the tissue culture laboratories that propagate disease-free plantlets of improved varieties to decentralized vine multipliers who multiply planting material for sale to smallholders. National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) constitute a vital link in these supply chains, because they are responsible for varietal release, micro-propagation of pathogen-tested tissue culture plantlets, and production of sweetpotato cuttings under screen house conditions. Those cuttings – known as ‘early generation seed’ (EGS) – are sold to decentralized vine multipliers, who grow them to sell quality planting material to farmers. Under the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) initiative, CIP is helping NARIs meet the growing demand for sweetpotato planting material in an efficient and cost effective manner.

African farmers need quality planting material to tap sweetpotato’s full potential as a vitamin A-rich, food security crop.

“We need to ensure that farmers have timely access to quality seed and improved varieties. Ensuring a consistent supply of EGS by our national partners is an important component of this,” said CIP agricultural economist Srinivasulu (Srini) Rajendran.

Srini explained that public institutions in many Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries have a mandate to produce quality planting material, but are hampered by unreliable funding and a lack of validated production and business models.  In response to this, CIP provided technical support to government and private sector actors in 11 SSA countries as they developed and launched business plans to improve and sustain EGS production and sales.

CIP and partners are creating supply chains to ensure that SSA farmers have healthy sweetpotato vine cuttings to plant.

CIP supported a team of scientists and experts in finance and administration to work with senior management at partner organizations on the development and implementation of the business plans, which included technical, financial, institutional and policy components. The technical component included capacity building in production processes to increase multiplication rates, establish internal quality assurance systems for EGS, and schedule production to match farmer planting schedules. Financial innovation focused on the establishment of a revolving fund mechanism whereby income from seed sales is reinvested in future production. This has also required changes in institutional policy and organizational culture.

“The business plan guides the institution to ensure that recurrent production costs can be met from the revolving fund by linking the technical, financial, institutional and policy components to improve overall seed systems,” Srini said.

CIP social scientist Margaret McEwan explained that researchers used real-time monitoring to determine the cost of early generation seed production at each NARI. “We now have evidence of the real cost of sweetpotato EGS production by public institutions. This lays the basis for appropriate pricing strategies to ensure the sustainability of the business in the medium term,” she said.

Srini noted that while some of the NARI’s face challenges, most of them are on track to being able to cover their production, administrative and marketing costs with the sale of planting material by 2019, when SASHA ends. “When we started this work in 2014, there were zero sales. Now all the NARIs we work with are generating revenues from the sale of pre-basic and/or basic sweetpotato seed, and nearly all of them are covering their costs of production,” he said.

The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) is a good example, having earned a profit from sales of OFSP planting material in 2017. Dr. Esther Kimani, KEPHIS Managing Director, explained that the institution reduced its production costs while increasing demand for high-quality orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) seed through web advertising, awareness raising activities and a variable pricing scheme based on the type of customer and the time of year planting material is delivered. Between 2016 and 2017, KEPHIS’ sales of quality OFSP seed increased by 79 percent. Moreover, whereas KEPHIS primarily sold OFSP cuttings to NGOs before 2016, farmers now constitute the majority of its customers.

“This has strengthened the sweetpotato seed system and availability of quality planting material for the sweetpotato farming community, improving the livelihoods of farmers and the food security of the nation as a whole,” Dr. Kimani observed.

L to R: Dr. Esther Kimani, KEPHIS Managing Director, Jackson Mandango, Governor of Uasin Gishu County, and Ms. Florence Munguti in KEPHIS sweetpotato EGS screenhouse. Photo: M.Okanda/KEPHIS

Florence Munguti, the Officer in Charge of KEPHIS’ Plant Quarantine and Biosafety Station, where sweetpotato EGS is produced, explained that since KEPHIS’ senior managers have seen the benefits of undertaking the costing exercise as the basis of developing a business plan for sweetpotato EGS production, they now want to apply the approach to seed production for other crops.

CIP and partners plan to conduct financial feasibility analyses for enterprises engaged in seed production for multiple root and tuber crops. “This will help to optimize use of production facilities and capacities,” Margaret said.

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