Haiti: Improving the sweetpotato seed system in a challenging humanitarian environment

Sweetpotato, a hardy and nutritious crop, holds immense potential in addressing food security and nutrition in Haiti. However, its full potential can only be realized through a functional seed system that ensures the availability, access and quality of healthy planting materials of local landraces and improved varieties for smallholder farmers.

A joint project by researchers from Quisqueya University and the International Potato Center (CIP) aims to analyze and improve existing seed systems, contributing to agricultural development, breeding, and humanitarian efforts. This story highlights the dedication and creativity the project team uses in conducting research for development despite gang violence, natural disasters, crime, and kidnapping.

Formidable challenges mark the journey of research for development in Haiti. Gang violence, the assassination of the president, natural disasters, crime, and kidnapping creates a volatile and unpredictable environment that hampers the implementation of project activities on the ground. Relocation of the university offices to safer areas, high staff turnover rates, and the closure of consulates and lockdowns due to social unrest (not COVID) add to the complexity of conducting collaborative research initiatives.

Sweetpotato is a preferred crop even in urban agriculture during food shortages. Still, farmers seek to address the issue of availability and access to healthy seeds. CIP and its partners embarked on research for a development project in early 2022 to shed light on the organization and functioning of the Haitian sweetpotato seed system. Using a multi-stakeholder framework, the researchers collected information from critical stakeholders in the sweetpotato value chain. The results reveal that ties between stakeholders are limited, with the closest relations existing between farmers who exchange seeds informally.

Bread made of sweetpotato roots in Les Cayes, Haiti. © CHIBAS, June 2022

The seed system operates under traditional settings, with varieties named, reproduced, and circulated based on farmers’ institutional arrangements without regulation from the public sector. The most cultivated varieties are Ti savyen, Grenn mouton, Tifi pi dous, and Ouvé lekó. The names are mostly local (in Haitian Creole) and gender-related. In some locations, such as Arniquet, Chantal, Camp-Perrin and Mirebelais, between 9 and 13 different varieties were reported. From one place to another, the same variety can have different names. For example, Ti kawót is also named as Ti esken. In both cases, the names reflect the elongated shape of the sweetpotato roots. Only one research structure and a few specialized seed producers were identified in the regions surveyed, highlighting the need for further development and reinforcement of the seed system. Commercial production and sales of seeds is very important during the winter season and to provide the planting material for the spring season.

Jan Low, a successful sweetpotato researcher and co-laureate of the 2016 World Food Prize, advocates that sweetpotato is a “no-brainer” for the country. Sweetpotato can be found in local markets, and the roots are consumed boiled, fried and as bread, while their leaves are used for animals.

In Haiti, seed producers plant sweetpotato between October and January, one month before the primary planting season, to harvest and sell vines to farmers. However, most farmers obtain vines from their plots or neighbours and relatives.

As part of project implementation, CIP provided Quisqueya University with 3,000 botanical (or “true”) seeds of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes (OFSP) with various trait combinations, including early maturity, high iron and zinc content, low and high levels of dry matter. Dr Gael Pressoir, Principal Investigator and Assistant Vice-President of Research explained: “CIP assistance has allowed for Quisqueya University to establish its own breeding program.  With funding from PITAG and additional support from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, we have established our rapid cycle sweetpotato breeding program.  CIP’s role is crucial to this endeavour as CIP is training Quisqueya Universities researchers and research assistants  on in vitro culture and clonal reproduction,  controlled crosses, pest and diseases assessment, and other technical expertise needed for the success of the program.”

Sweetpotato seeds harvested for breeding purposes. © Chibas, May 2022

Bettina Heider, CIP Scientist added: “The botanical seeds are currently being evaluated for selection to be used in the breeding program at the university. The decision to distribute seeds rather than in vitro plantlets was made due to several reasons. Seed distribution is easier and better adapted to the unpredictable conditions in Haiti as seeds are less delicate and easier to handle, making them a more practical option.”

However, she continued, “sweetpotato is a clonally propagated crop and therefore each seed represents a unique genotype. The ultimate goal is to release these new sweetpotato materials as new varieties, which will offer valuable benefits to farmers and communities in Haiti. Sweetpotato weevils (Cylas Formicarius) have been identified as the main quality problem and resistance to them, one of the selection criteria, due to the damage weevils cause to the storage roots which makes them unsuitable for consumption.

Benedique Paul, an agro economist working at the University of Quisqueya and who led the sweetpotato seed system assessment in Haiti, explains that “sweetpotato is becoming more and more a food security crop in Haiti, both for its short production period in times of food shortage and its nutritional components for a population with a high prevalence of anemia,” he said. “In the liberal market economy of Haiti, sweetpotato is not in direct competition with imported goods. It can be planted in different agroecosystems, both highlands and lowlands, and our team is analysing sweetpotato seed transactions between farmers in the different places.

Flexibility and ICT as improvised solutions to a challenging research environment 

However, conducting all these activities was hampered by the volatile situation in the country, forcing the project team to resort to creative means of project implementation.

In the face of these challenges, maintaining high levels of flexibility and realism is essential. Workplans were continuously adapted to account for unforeseen events and changing circumstances. When travel and face-to-face workshops became impossible, virtual training and online learning have served as viable alternatives, ensuring continuity in project activities. The location of training events had to be altered to ensure the safety and feasibility of participants and trainers, and a social media communication strategy was used to facilitate easy and rapid knowledge exchange.

Aspirations for research for development in Haiti had to be aligned with the realities on the ground. A shared sense of purpose and resilience can be developed by setting realistic and achievable milestones and strengthening collaboration with stakeholders. At the same time, researchers focus on incremental progress and celebrate meaningful achievements, even amidst adversity.

The sweetpotato seed system in Haiti holds great promise for improving food security and nutrition in the country. Despite the uphill battle, the dedication, passion, and perseverance of those involved in sweetpotato research for development, particularly those in the fields that face significant daily challenges, offer hope for a brighter future in Haiti’s agricultural landscape.

The project is in collaboration with Quisqueya University, which is funded by The Agricultural and Agroforestry Technological Innovation Programme (PITAG), which receives support from IFAD, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. This is handled (and co-financed) through the MINISTÈRE DE L'AGRICULTURE, DES RESSOURCES NATURELLES ET DU DÉVELOPPEMENT RURAL (MARNDR).