Why orange fleshed sweetpotato is the crop to grow in Western Kenya

The sun is hot and the air thick with moisture as we drive along an 80-mile stretch of road that connects the Western Kenyan cities of Kisumu and Homa Bay. It is farming that sustains the land and the people here. It sends children to school, pays for weddings and funerals and provides local communities with small but steady income throughout the year.

As we pull into one such farm we see Emily tending to her fields. She is bent over, focused on planting vines in the dirt – one after another. She turns her head and meets our gaze as we approach. “Welcome,” she says flashing us a huge smile. “My name is Emily Woromboto and this is my land. I am married to this place.”

With obvious pride she surveys the land before her. Row upon row of small green vines poke out from the dry dirt beneath. “Today I am planting my fields with the orange-fleshed sweetpotato” she says proudly. “This is a plant which has been introduced to me very recently. I have been taught that this sweetpotato has a lot of nutrition in it”.

It is also proving to be a financial boon for local farmers thanks to an innovative partnership between the International Potato Center (CIP), Tuskys Supermarket (the second largest supermarket chain in Kenya), and Organi Limited, a new local factory revolutionizing the sweetpotato industry in the area.

With us is Gabriel, Organi’s manager. Gabriel and Emily chat enthusiastically about how the planting is going. It is an easy banter of two people who know each other well and are excited about what they are doing. The vines Emily is planting benefits them both. Collectively smallholder farmers like Emily ensure that Organi has a consistent supply of orange fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) and the built in market for their harvests means that farmers like Emily have a paycheck they can rely on.

The two were brought together through the International Potato Center (CIP) project SUSTAIN (Scaling up Sweetpotato through Agriculture and Nutrition funded through UK AID) which is working to strengthen the value chain for this often overlooked crop. The pair works in collaboration with a larger team to give new life to orange fleshed sweetpotato.

A partnership between agriculture and health

The project is centered around a unique partnership between agriculture and health. The Ministry of Health and PATH (a leading international health NGO) collaborate with both CIP and the local Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that nutrition and agricultural interventions are linked effectively and to ensure that skills and experiences are shared.

Such a collaboration has powerful impact in this context. In Kenya, Vitamin A deficiency is a significant public health problem. The SUSTAIN project is working in Nyanza province in Western Kenya, where over 50% of women do not receive vitamin A supplementation post-partum and over 60% of children under 6 months are likely not to receive vitamin A supplements. In this region, foods such as orange-fleshed sweetpotato can serve as a major source of vitamin A as well as enhancing food security for families as the OFSP varieties mature quickly (3-4 months).

To improve health in the area, CIP sets out to reach 35,000 households with children under 5 years of age with OFSP vines and nutrition education by 2018 with the expectation that these targeted households will then produce OFSP at least twice a year and consume OFSP at least twice per week when it is in season. This will significantly increase the frequency of OFSP consumption and will enhance infant and young child feeding practices. The project is supported by APHIAPlus Western Kenya Project and is implemented in coordination with PATH who is a key project health partner.

Eliminating the Middleman Yields Big Profits

Located right next door to Emily’s farm the Organi factory sits proudly by the main road. Gabriel, a former Ministry of Agriculture staff member, draws our gaze towards the factory just as a delivery van weighted down with OFSP turns up and honks at the gate. Once inside, the back door is thrown open and staff start unloading. “The farmers from the local area are now growing OFSP,” Gabriel says. “They can see there is a market for it and so they grow it. They deliver it to us so that we can process the roots into puree and send the puree off to Nairobi to be made into bread and scones. See how many they are bringing? It is great to see!”

For Emily the partnership has been transformative. By eliminating the middleman and selling directly to Organi she has seen her finances grow exponentially. “I decided that I should switch to it (OFSP) because the market is already here,” Emily says. “We used to plant the other one (the white fleshed sweetpotato). We would sell a very large bag to the middleman but we would get very little money in return. I started with one-acre of land to plant. The one-acre gave me about 80,000 shillings ($786) which we could not get with the (variety of) potato we planted in the past. Here, that is a very good return.”

Selling to Organi also saves farmers time. They can bring their sweetpotatoes right to the factory’s door where it is checked and weighed. Farmers can then receive payment on their phones via mobile banking so no waiting is required. “With the other sweetpotato sometimes you take your product to the roadside and wait for up to three days for the middlemen,” Gabriel says.

OFSP Products Open Doors to New Market Opportunities

The Organi and local farmer collaboration is the brainchild of CIP which recognized the potential to create a market for commercial products made out of orange fleshed sweetpotato. The key was coming up with a distribution outlet for products that would tempt the Kenyan palette. Collaborating with Tuskys Supermarket and Euro Ingredients, CIP led research into developing products for consumers, resulting in a range of OFSP recipes for baked goods being developed. Since the products were launched in 2015 in a select line of Tuskys outlets demand has escalated quickly

“We got Tuskys interested by doing a consumer study of OFSP products,” explains SUSTAIN Kenya project manager, Penina Muoki who joined us on the trip. ” Through a collaboration with Euro Ingredients we developed recipes and trained bakers at Tuskys to create OFSP baked goods that offers customers old favorites with a new twist with a focus on taste, quality and nutrition for the more discerning consumer.”

Penina is pleased to see the fruits of the partnership: “the three partners Tuksys, CIP and Organi are working together to ensure that the project succeeds. By May 2015, Tuskys and the factory were up and running, they had procured the basic equipment and with technical support from CIP had launched into production.

“Quite quickly, Tuskys decided to start producing and selling these products in their stores and that is where the real journey started,” Penina says. “We are looking at ways we can meet the demand as quickly as possible and we are excited to be able to help provide our farmers in Kenya with this new opportunity. For now, we are able to provide about 250 kilos per day to Tuskys (this has increased to 500 kilos per day by February 2016). We are hoping to increase this amount as we reach out to more farmers.”

Training Farmers Streamlines Production, Profits

Processors like Organi Limited are critical to influencing farmers. A demonstration plot next to the factory piques local interest in the new crop and allows farmers to see first hand how to plant, care and harvest for OFSP. It also gives staff the opportunity to test and evaluate new techniques. Gabriel and staff also routinely visit with local community members to convince them of the benefits of OFSP farming.

When Gabriel first met Emily she was still planting the traditional less nutritious white fleshed sweetpotato. “I gave Emily three reasons why she should try the orange fleshed one,” Gabriel says. “One, that it is high-yielding; two that we (Organi Factory) will be offering a market for the crop and three that OFSP is very healthy and nutritious. I told her she could also keep some and eat it at home to get vitamin A and to improve her nutrition.”

Emily was initially given planting material from the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Organization and as Gabriel says the rest is history: “the yield was good and so she decided to continue growing OFSP. We have now purchased roots from her at least 4-5 times and will continue to do so.”

The factory specializes in processing the sweetpotato they purchase from farmers like Emily into a puree that is a less costly substitute to imported wheat. It can be used to produce a range of baked sweetpotato products for the health conscious, urban consumers. CIP scientists are now working on finding innovative ways store fresh roots and how to package sweetpotato puree produced by Organi so that it retains maximum nutrition and freshness for longer periods of time.

Gabriel and Penina have established a strong relationship with farmers in the area to ensure they can learn from one another and to strengthen the value chain by improving farming practices. “Just today, I was coaching Emily on the modern methods of planting sweetpotato,” Gabriel says.

“The biggest problem in regards to planting is spacing – leaving too much space between plants meaning that some farmers only get half or a third of what they should” Gabriel uses research from CIP and the local Ministry of Agriculture to provide advice to local farmers on best practices such as planting vines along ridges spaced 30 centimeters (12 inches) apart. “When it rains the water does not flow away but instead gets trapped by the ridges and used by the plants,” Gabriel says.

Improving the Harvesting Process Next on SUSTAIN Agenda

Regular training for farmers are made possible through the SUSTAIN project and facilitated by Gabriel, CIP and Ministry of Agriculture staff. “Together, they are able to cover the whole value chain from land preparation through to marketing and cost-benefit analysis,” Penina says. After a day of training farmers are able to make informed decisions on whether or not to plant OFSP. “They now know the dynamics involved and the kind of profits they can get,” Penina says. “They can make an informed decision about what to do with their land.”

CIP is pleased to see research being turned into results for consumers, producers and farmers in Kenya. As Penina excitedly discusses future plans for the factory and farmers with Gabriel and Emily she says: “from the SUSTAIN point of view, we are excited that the value chain is being driven by demand and we can cascade that to production, which I think is a new shift. And for us, this is a good challenge.”

For Emily her “marriage to the land” is proving to be quite fruitful; it has provided her with chance to create new opportunities for her and her family and to find a way to continue to farm the land she loves.

SUSTAIN is a 5-year partnership (2013- 2018), coordinated by CIP and financed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), to scale up the nutrition benefits of biofortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP). The goal is to reach 1.2 million households with under-5 year old children in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and Rwanda. SUSTAIN supports integrated interventions in agriculture, nutrition, and marketing to strengthen production and consumption of OFSP. SUSTAIN emphasizes rigorous measurement and evaluation in order to assess the scalability of these interventions and contribute to global evidence on achieving large scale nutrition outcomes through biofortified crops.