Potatoes and sweetpotatoes on the table in Africa

(10 Jul 2013) With 280 participants – 80 more than expected – the African Potato Association (APA) triennial conference last week in Naivasha, Kenya clearly showed that potatoes and sweetpotatoes are increasingly important in the region. This APA conference was co-organized by the government of Kenya, CIP and Kenya’s National Potato Council, and its focus was the transformation of potato and sweetpotato value chains for food security, nutrition and poverty reduction.

Crop diversification policies and climate change have made the two crops more relevant than ever, as they constitute resilient options for improving health and income on a continent with a rapidly growing population (according to UN projections, Africa’s population could more than double by mid-century, increasing from 1.1 billion today to 2.4 billion in 2050). It was inspiring to see the meeting rooms packed and bustling with a relatively young mix of participants, discussing issues such as seed quality, disease management, breeding for value chains and gender – priority topics for potato and sweetpotato experts.

Potatoes are much more common in Africa than those who live outside the continent might imagine. The conference venue itself is located in Kenya’s potato country, in the Rift Valley, where potatoes can be seen for sale in buckets along roadsides. The region offers good growing conditions, but its farmers face various problems, among them late blight, weevils, and poor quality or insufficient planting materials. For years, CIP has engaged local governments, NGOs and the private sector to leverage knowledge and support the dissemination of improved varieties, the adoption of breeding technologies, and the strengthening of value chains.

A presentation of aeroponic and sand hydroponic systems sparked considerable interest in the audience, as did the announcement of the introduction of CIP late blight- and heat-resistant potato clones. The importance of taking farmers and consumers into account was a recurring theme at the gathering, as was illustrated by a poster presented by Semagn Kolech and colleagues on their work: “Identifying factors that determine potato varietal adoption at the farmer level in East Africa: Emphasis on Ethiopia.”

Sweetpotatoes have become increasingly popular in Africa, as they can be grown in marginal soils with minimal input. Traditionally considered a ‘poor man’s’ crop, their image is slowly changing. The orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) has already earned recognition in many African countries for its positive impact on health – it is rich in beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A – and income, especially for women, who sell vine cuttings as planting material, or are suppliers for processed sweetpotato products. One of the most popular booths at the conference belonged to Rwanda Superfoods, which showcased Akarabo biscuits, made with OFSP pulp.

The conference was clearly oriented toward innovation and improvement. The first part focused on seed systems and crop breeding, two fields of particular interest to participants. This was followed by a series of presentations and discussions on value chains, which covered success stories, challenges and areas in need of improvement. Participants then divided into groups for different field trips around the country, where they got hands-on experience in innovative potato and sweetpotato projects, and spent time with the people involved in them. Those of us who went to Bungoma, in Western Kenya, were able meet some of the mothers and farmers involved in the Mama SASHA project, which has brought together families, nurses and technical experts to promote OFSP cultivation and improve health and nutrition, especially for pregnant and lactating women. Expertise, innovation and partnership have been the keys Mama SASHA’s success – an excellent example of science working for development.

The APA’s next triennial conference will take place in 2016 in Ethiopia, the country that was designated during the closing ceremony to take over the presidency of the Association. We look forward to learning about the progress made in the next three years!


potato, sweetpotato