Cow cafeteria? Exploiting the potential of sweetpotato as an animal feed in East Africa

“You’re a livestock specialist, what are you doing working with sweetpotato?” Ben Lukuyu laughs as he describes this typical reaction from his colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, where he works with the multi-partner East African Dairy Development project. But it is sweetpotato’s highly promising potential as an animal feed that interests Lukuyu, and has him teaming up with Sammy Agili, a sweetpotato breeder with the International Potato Center (CIP), and other public and private partners in East Africa. Their goal: to better position sweetpotato as a healthy and easily available livestock feed option.

East Africa has the highest per capita consumption of livestock products (e.g., dairy cattle, pig, and goats for meat and milk) in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). But smallholder producers face increasing feed costs and challenges. High population pressures have increased the competition for grains as food or livestock feed. Major shortages occur during the dry season, and quality feed concentrates demand a price many cannot afford. Napier grass, which is used in Kenya as a primary feed for dairy farming, requires significant allocations of land and is currently suffering from a major disease outbreak.

Increased use and production of sweetpotato may provide a solution. Sweetpotato vines offer more protein and dry matter per unit area and require less land than other commonly used livestock feeds. For example, Kenyan researchers have found that 4 kilos of vines could replace 1 kilo of dairy concentrate. Sweetpotato roots also make good feed – and both the roots and vines are a healthy source of food for people, too.

The project is part of CIP’s Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) initiative, which seeks to directly improve the food security and livelihoods of at least 150,000 families of Sub-Saharan Africa in 5 years. It builds on work developed by CIP in Asia. “In China, 25-30% of sweetpotato crops are used for animal feed,” notes Lukuyu. “We are drawing on CIP’s many years of experience in China and other parts of Asia, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, where they successfully use sweetpotato in livestock systems.”

CIP is working directly with pig and dairy farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. They are guiding adaptive participatory research to test the feasibility and business case for using sweetpotato vines as silage and leaf protein supplements. “We like to call it the ‘cow cafeteria’,” explains Lukuyu. “We want to give farmers options for mixing feed and feeding strategies to best respond to their needs and demands.”

On-station and farm-based experiments are testing low-cost silage-making techniques and different blends using roots, vines, and other feeds. They are also trying varieties under different cropping regimes and analyzing nutritional components under varying conditions.

Partners in this initiative include: International Potato Center, International Livestock Research Institute, East African Dairy Development Project, Heifer International, Technoserve, African Breeding Services Ltd., World Agroforestry Centre, University of Nairobi Department of Animal Production, Egerton University, Farmer’s Choice Ltd., and Rwanda Agricultural Board/Research.


Ben Lukuyu, International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi; East African Dairy Development project, E-mail:

Sammy Agili, International Potato Centre, Nairobi, E-mail: