Lessons from the African Potato Association (APA) Conference

It was a learning experience; that’s the only way to describe the 9th Triennial APA conference. There was information on everything (and anything) you could want to know about potatoes and sweetpotatoes, in Africa and beyond, in posters, exhibitions and oral presentations. So the question is: what did I learn?

Well, I learned some new things and gained new perspectives on other areas I was familiar with. One thing that intrigued me from the first day was how many parallels can be drawn between potato and sweetpotato. They are complimentary crops, but whereas potato is a ‘cool crop,’ grown in high altitude climates, sweetpotato is a ‘warm crop’ that thrives at lower altitudes. Yet they suffer similar production constraints, with planting material being a major bottleneck for both crops. They are also both viewed negatively by many people – potato is often associated with unhealthy junk food, whereas sweetpotato is seen as a ‘poor man’s crop.’ One key difference between the two is in post harvesting processes, which are well developed for potato, but not as much for sweetpotato.

Presentations on Africa showed the potential that exists for collaboration and knowledge sharing in various areas, such as potato seed quality. Different countries are at different levels in the quest to produce sufficient quality potato seed, and attempts to close the gap have had differing degrees of success. Ethiopia, for example, has had some success with Quality Declared Seed (QDS), and countries with lower quality standards or minimal seed certification could learn from their experience.

It seems to me that processing orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes into juices, jams, biscuits (quite tasty) and other products, as is done in Rwanda, or the substitution of sweetpotato flour in muffins and other wheat products to make them healthier, are ideas with potential for money making ventures that target the increasingly health conscious consumers in the urban areas of my country (Kenya). I also wonder how, for example, we can emulate the success of Potatoes South Africa in promoting consumption of potato (and sweetpotato) in the different population segments of our countries?

The presentations by experts from outside of Africa got me wondering about future disease threats. Will the potato virus PVYn pose a major problem for the regions CIP works in? Are there lessons to be learned from the United States in how to control that disease? I was also quite impressed by the advances in sweetpotato processing in China, where sweetpotato noodles and other sweetpotato-based foods are now widely being consumed —and I wondered how I could emulate what they are doing so that the advantages of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes could be more widely utilized by the different consumer segments in my country?

All in all, it was a mind-revitalizing event that has expanded my perception of the possibilities that exist for potatoes and sweetpotatoes. I made some new friends and I got some new ideas for things I’d like to try in the future. APA may well turn out to be a life changer for me, if (and when) I am able to implement my new ideas.