Funders: Government of India, Odisha Directorate of Horticulture
Dr. Sreekanth Attaluri, who has worked for CIP in India since 2002, has witnessed an important change in the perceptions and cultivation of Sweetpotato in the eastern state of Odisha. Whereas few people considered sweetpotato important and only white-fleshed varieties were grown in Odisha a decade ago, production has increased and farmers and consumers are more interested in nutritious orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) varieties.
“Sweetpotato was once considered a poor man’s crop here, but now it is considered a rich man’s crop,” Sreekanth said.
Much of that change took place during the past four years, thanks to a CIP-led project called Generating Advances in Incomes and Nutrition through Sweetpotato (GAINS). Funded by India’s Ministry of Agriculture and managed by the Odisha state government, GAINS has improved the sweetpotato production and incomes of approximately 6,000 of the state’s smallholder farmers. And when the project ended in November of 2017, Odisha was poised for even greater expansion of the crop.
Odisha is India’s largest sweetpotato producer, and the crop has religious and cultural significance there, yet Sreekanth lamented that too few people know about its nutritional value and value chain opportunities. This only began to change after government officials become aware of one of sweetpotato’s many attributes – it’s resiliency in extreme climate events. In 2013, Cyclone Phailin battered India’s eastern coast, destroying much of Odisha’s crops and raising the specter of hunger. However, most sweetpotato fields survived, so farmers dug up those roots in the days following the storm, saving tens of thousands from hunger and confirming sweetpotato’s value as a disaster recovery crop.
Indian officials consequently decided to promote sweetpotato cultivation in Odisha. In 2013, CIP signed an agreement with the Government of India for the four-year GAINS project, for which CIP partnered with the Odisha Directorate of Horticulture, with participation by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Together, they crafted a gender-responsive approach to help farmers increase their yields and incomes while promoting consumption of sweetpotato in four Odisha districts: Ganjam, Dhenkanal, Koraput and Sundargarh.
Improved sweetpotato varieties like Kanjangad and orange-fleshed Bidhan Jyoti, which are more nutritious and higher yielding than local varieties, were introduced into those districts. CIP facilitated the production and distribution of planting material for them, set up demonstration blocks, and arranged training in good agricultural practices for more than 2,000 farmers and extension agents. That training was tailored to the needs of farmers in different areas, since commercial production dominates the lowlands of Ganjam and uplands of Dhenkanal districts, whereas the hilly Koraput and Sundargarh districts are predominantly home to tribes that mainly grow sweetpotato for family consumption.
Smallholder Srinivas Sahoo and various other farmers from the village of Shankarpur, in Dhenkanal district, had traditionally grown rice, but suffered poor harvests during low-rain years. They got planting material for the improved sweetpotato varieties from a nearby horticulture station, and were happy to find that sweetpotato tolerates drought and produces much more food per hectare than other crops. “There are now around 500 farmers in our village growing sweetpotato,” he said.
By the end of 2017, the area dedicated to sweetpotato in the four districts had grown by 25%, productivity had increased by 17%, and farmer incomes had increased by as much as 40%. CIP complemented its efforts to increase production with campaigns to promote sweetpotato consumption – a campaign that benefitted from lessons learned in Africa, where Sreekanth visited several CIP projects. CIP scientists and World Food Prize Laureates Maria Andrade and Jan Low – who have led highly successful campaigns promoting OFSP in Africa – traveled to Odisha to advise Sreekanth. The resulting promotion included educational posters, murals and street shows about sweetpotato’s nutritional value, its introduction into school lunch programs, sweetpotato kiosks near Hindu temples and a mobile kitchen where cooking demonstrations with sweetpotato are offered to the public. Odisha chef Ahmad Khan noted that sweetpotato can be used in an array of Indian dishes including samosas, the flatbread paratha and the deserts gulab janum and khir.
As a testament to GAINS’ success, the Government of India approved a second phase of the project starting in July of 2018. That phase will replicate achievements of phase I in four additional districts, while placing greater emphasis on nutrition education and varieties with high beta-carotene content. Thought GAINS has only worked in four of Odisha’s 30 districts, it has established a scalable approach that can be used to accelerate adoption of improved varieties in the rest of the state.
“We’ve built the confidence of the farmers, the state government and the other research institutions,” Sreekanth said. “In the second phase, we want to focus on getting more people to grow and eat sweetpotato.”