The power of partnership: Working with NARS to increase impact

New varieties of sweetpotato increase its already-impressive ability to grow in harsh climates, giving vulnerable communities a reliable source of food and nutrition. (photo/CIP)

At the International Potato Center (CIP), our work is conducted through partnerships with the public and private sectors. Most commonly, we work through National Agricultural Research Services (NARS) that are affiliated with the host countries. These institutions are dedicated to serving farmers with their expertise in agronomy, plant health, and a host of other topics. CIP collaborates with NARS to build this expertise so that the latest innovations and information on root and tuber crops can be shared and implemented throughout the country.

“In my experience, working with NARS is the very best example of South-to-South knowledge sharing,” says Bettina Heider, a scientist in the Genetics, Genomics, and Crop Improvement program at CIP. 

A recent great example of this collaboration has rippled through Central America where CIP is working to increase biofortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) consumption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by strengthening capacities of NARS in those countries to promote this crop through awareness raising about its nutritional and economic benefits. 

“We brought the expertise on OFSP and the NARS gave us direction on the content and how best to connect with consumers, farmers and policymakers,” Heider says.

Biofortification offers multiple potential benefits to farmers and families as it provides an economically-sustainable and efficient way of producing micronutrient-enriched crops that improve food and nutrition security for vulnerable populations. The nutrient content means that families need to spend less money on vitamins, minerals and other supplements to ensure sufficient nutrition. For farmers, biofortified crops are a means to increase resilience to changing weather and rainfall patterns as many varieties are bred for climate-resilience, especially for drought as experienced in Central America over the past four years.

In particular, biofortified OFSP offers tremendous promise to address nutrition security needs in Central America as it is widely adaptable across environments and requires few inputs from farmers and produced reliable high yields of 10-15 tonnes per hectare. The latest varieties of OFSP provide more edible energy and vitamin A per unit area and time than any other major food crop. As well, OFSP is a good source of iron, calcium, protein, vitamin C, and dietary fiber.

“These qualities make OFSP the right crop to address the challenges facing smallholder farmers in Central America and the Caribbean today. Besides, this region is a center of origin for sweetpotato but the crop has lost its relevance to farmers today. Restoring this connection would have many social and economic benefits,” says Carolina Gonzalez, a Thematic Leader for Biofortification in Latin American with the Alliance of Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

With support from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), restoring this connection to OFSP began with engaging NARS to foster consumer acceptance for the crop but also for strengthening NARS capacity for promoting innovations along the sweetpotato value chain to ensure that supply and demands could be reliable and profitable for a wide range of actors – from field to market and dinner table.

Orange-fleshed sweetpotato has great potential to boost incomes and nutrition in Central America through an ongoing collaboration between CIP, CIAT and the WFP (photo/CIP)

Connecting with NARS in the respective countries was the key to success, according to Marie Belanger, a Regional Project Coordinator with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Panama.

“NARS provide the means for replication and sustainability. They teach post-harvest practices to farmers and facilitate knowledge transfer for the entire growing cycle. Then they follow-up on their work and use those lessons to inform how they change their approach in future,” she says. 

Having this “on-the-ground” knowledge is crucial to linking local farmers and consumers with national levels policymakers who have the tools to support biofortification and OFSP on a much wider scale. 

Seed systems also matter.

“To me that is the important next step to scale up OFSP in our target countries… working with NARS to build seed systems that increase availability of high-quality planting material,” says Gonzalez.

Once planting material becomes available to farmers, the government and private sector will be the primary channels for disseminating biofortified OFSP, but also biofortified crops that can alleviate struggles with nutrition. 

“And NARS are best positioned to inform policymakers about biofortification as the government creates the processes to commercialize and market OFSP to consumers.”

Later this month, the WFP, CIP and CIAT are hosting a session with participating NARS from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras on information sharing and knowledge management for OFSP. The attendees will be trained to use CIAT’s online platform on biofortification to learn more about sharing best practices throughout the region. In 2021, six workshops have been conducted, training more than 20 participants in Central America. Right now, the workplan for 2022 is being discussed and finalized among the teams.