Q&A with Bernard Yada: Empowering National Agricultural Research Systems

Ugandan farmers rely on sweetpotato to earn a living and feed their families. Plant breeder Dr. Bernard Yada is working to deliver improved varieties that help them do both. (Photo: B. Yada/NaCRRI)

As senior research officer with Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) Bernard Yada and his team are instrumental in modernizing sweetpotato breeding in sub-Saharan Africa. He sat down recently with CIP regional communications specialist, Vivian Atakos, to discuss how involving key end-users at the beginning of the breeding process is helping to reduce costs while delivering new varieties that meet the challenges of a changing world.

VA: What is it about sweetpotato that fuels your passion as a breeder?

BY: Sweetpotato is the most nutrient dense root, tuber and banana crop in the whole world. It is easier to biofortify through breeding. You can easily map crosses and generate populations from which you can select.

Sweetpotato harvests twice in a year. In sub-Saharan Africa, our producers can make money and produce sufficient food throughout the year. Also, sweetpotato is fairly resilient to climate [changes]. For instance, our producers can get the crop even when there’s severe drought. That’s what makes it tick for me as a breeder.

VA: In Uganda, what is the role of this crop in in terms of productivity, food security and market opportunities?

BY: In Uganda, sweetpotato is a major food, nutrition and income security crop with a per capita consumption of 85 kilograms per year. Over the next five years the national working agenda is taking sweetpotato as a strategic commodity for the development of Uganda. The government is especially looking forward to further promoting the nutrient dense, orange-fleshed varieties for nutrition and income security. So, sweetpotato plays a very critical role in the development and well-being of the citizens of Uganda.

Products made from sweetpotato puree on sale in Uganda. Sweetpotato is a versatile crop that lowers production costs of baked goods while adding nutrition. Plant breeders like Yada take into account the needs of producers, vendors, and consumers when developing new varieties with market-preferred traits (photo: CIP)

VA: Given that sweetpotato is key in terms of food security and has numerous market opportunities in Uganda, what are some of the challenges to its productivity?

BY: One of the leading challenges to its productivity is that many producers like to grow non-orange fleshed varieties. Developing acceptable orange varieties with the right color properties is one of the major challenges are addressing so that these nutrient-dense varieties can be further promoted and taken up for production in the country. Secondly, sweetpotato is vulnerable to a number of pests and diseases. Specifically, in Uganda, you will find sweetpotato virus disease can cause significant yield damage – up to 98 percent in some extreme cases. When it comes to pests, sweetpotato weevils severely damage the crop. They actually feed on the roots which is what farmers and producers need to harvest. Weevils can cause between 67 and 100 percent yield losses, especially in areas which suffer intermittent lesser droughts. Another major other problem the industry faces is the underdeveloped sweetpotato seed systems. There is not much private sector investment in sweetpotato seed systems to date. This means a lot of effort in seed systems has to be done by the public sector, which normally has constrained funds. So, developing systems is another needed intervention to address some of these challenges.

VA:  Your team recently did a comprehensive study to really understand the traits that key stakeholders are looking for in sweetpotato. Could you tell us about this and what it means for your breeding work?

BY: We partnered with a company known as AbacusBio to conduct a 1,000 minds survey to identify the key traits that are preferred by various actors in the sweetpotato industry, from root producers, seed producers, processors, and even transporters. Through this we identified lead-traits desired by sweetpotato industry actors in Uganda. They told us: virus and disease resistance, weevil resistance, vine survival and other value-added traits. The advantage of working on the AbacusBio study was that we were able to attach economic weights to each of these traits. This is critical for us as we develop new varieties to replace the ones currently being produced by the farmers in Uganda.

VA: It’s good to see that collaboration yielding fruit. Let’s delve a little deeper into product profiles… what are the benefits of using these profiles?

BY: Product profiles improve the efficiency of the breeding work in that a cross functional team of stakeholders identify three value-added traits to introduce into new varieties to replace the current market ones. This helps to cut waste. Spreading your breeding efforts across too many traits can be costly. Another advantage of developing a product profile is it creates accountability between the breeder and the product profile management team because you provide accounts of the progress of your breeding work. Once you get your product profile right, the variety developed will have a higher chance of being adopted, because it has the lead traits desired by the end users. This increases the adoption and dissemination of this variety, and increases the efficiency of the breeding program, in general.

VA: That’s what we want… we want to ensure that it’s actually the smallholder farmers who are benefiting. Could you tell us from your work at NaCRRI how we are reaching these farmers and how exactly you see them benefiting?

BY: Through our product profiles, we have interacted with these farmers. They have clearly stated the traits that they want to see in future varieties. When we reach the last stages of our breeding cycle, we work establish experimental trials, giving farmers the opportunity to participate in the selection. This enhances the adoption or the acceptability of the new varieties. We also engage farmers in the seed production of candidate varieties, helping them create an entry point for the new varieties to the farming community. This means they’re able to produce seed at early stages and profit from seed sales, in addition to the production and sale of the roots. When we work with farmers, we take care that the traits we introduce are responsive to needs based on gender. We take care to work with women and youth producers so that their needs are always incorporated in our breeding work.

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 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.