Kirimi Sindi is the CIP country manager overseeing the Sweetpotato through Agriculture and Nutrition (SUSTAIN) project in Rwanda. His team is working at making bio-fortified Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato (OFSP) ubiquitous in the Rwandan diet. He shares some of the strategies they’re employing to meet their goal of reaching more than a quarter million people in the lifespan of the project.
The SUSTAIN project is starting to roll out branded OFSP markets located on main stretches of highway, while working to brand OFSP at other local markets. What is the thinking behind this strategy?
This is a continuation of the SASHA project, (which basically started working on creating) a value chain for OFSP. When we take OFSP to a normal market people are not familiar with OFSP and are more likely to buy the white and yellow fleshed sweetpotatoes because they have grown up eating them. It became necessary to brand OFSP as a different product.
In every market there is a corner for every commodity. In the sweetpotato corner, we created a branded OFSP corner. The person selling it is given more information, they are knowledgeable about Vitamin A, they know how to grow OFSP and how to preserve it. When the customer comes to buy sweetpotato they see a clean area, that is well branded and well-packaged and it attracts them. In tangent we decided to develop a whole market branded as OFSP so that any person coming there throughout the year knows that they can purchase OFSP. While this market doesn’t only sell OFSP, there are also other fruits and vegetables, the branding is important to elicit a form of curiosity in the product. As people drive by the market they will see the OFSP branding even if they don’t stop and buy OFSP that day, so that when they go to the normal market they will ask their vendors, “By the way I have seen this OFSP do you have it?”
Last season we added 40,000 new OFSP farmers and they need to know that they are going to be able sell what they plant. We want to people to talk about OFSP and ask where to get it. By developing corners and OFSP markets in each district people know where they can buy it year round.
Why is branding so important to the success of the project?
When you say you are promoting sweetpotato people think of what they know which has specific characteristics: white or yellow fleshed made up of a low dry matter content. Africans prefer eating dry matter content because they want something to land in their stomach and not come out of their stomach until the evening. How do you tell people with high dry matter content to eat something with low dry matter content?
It is important to emphasize that we are not promoting sweetpotato, we are promoting a new product called OFSP. Whenever I talk to a government officer or a donor agency we never talk about sweetpotato we talk about OFSP. This way people ask what is so different about this orange and you have an opportunity to communicate the message about its health benefits.
In a way we are branding OFSP just like Coca-Cola has done with Coke. It is branded everywhere even where people don’t drink coca-cola, they know the bottle. They are familiar with it. Once people ask that question, what is OFSP it opens doors. The idea is to elicit curiosity. We have used all types of media: social media, newspapers, radio, sign boards on roadsides, t-shirts, and cars all branded OFSP. The idea is to be everywhere. Once you form a taste preference people tend to fall back to it, unless you create a demand for a new product. This is what happened with Coca-Cola. People don’t ask do you want to drink, they now ask- do you want a Coke? These days wherever we go and we tell people we work with OFSP, people say they have seen our signboard. I no longer have to introduce what I do, everyone in Rwanda has heard of OFSP.
SUSTAIN-Rwanda is a five year project how do you assure that the people who have adopted OFSP are still growing it ten years from now?
OFSP baked goods are one income generating activity that motivate farmers to plant OFSP.
If you think farmers are going to grow a crop because of the nutritional benefits alone, forget it. Farmers have many, many competing interests. In a poor society income overrides everything. You can give a person a new technology which provides higher yields, but that is not enough to increase the acceptance of a crop. We have to change taste preferences and create demand. When you make a crop a cash crop there is a high likelihood that a crop is going to be sold. This is why we work on value chains. We help provide a market and teach how to use OFSP in products like mandazi (a type of local doughnut). This is what makes a project sustainable. We know that 30% of a harvest, even when you don’t tell a farmer about the nutritional benefits, always remains with the farmer.
It is crucial to provide a market for the 70% being sold. If it is not provided then farmers will slowly discontinue planting this crop and the 30% consumed by the family will also disappear.
What is the average profile of a SUSTAN OFSP farmer?
The majority of SUSTAIN farmers are female. S. Quinn/CIP
The nature of the crop have always been grown by women. It’s a woman’s crop. Most of these farmers do not have continuous income from a cash crop, so they grow maize, they grow beans and normal potatoes for sale. These rain-fed crops are very seasonal and mature during the same time period. Everyone is selling the same crop at the same. You can imagine the prices they are getting. Rwanda is special because the land holdings are small. A typical household has half an acre which is not enough space to even keep animals. In other countries small animals are the main source of income at other times of the year. Here even keeping a chicken is a problem because they might wander over and eat the neighbours crops.
There is very little money circulating which often means that people cope in the lean times by pulling kids from school. In Africa our children are our social security. If children do well they will support their parents as they grow. The landholdings are small, on average 0.7 hectare (1.3 acres) per family, and the fertility rate is between 5-7 children. When you have only 0.7 hectares of land and you divide it among your 5 children there is not much left. Education is the main gateway out of poverty.
How does growing OFSP help them?
Sweetpotato can be grown throughout the year. You can plant it at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season, and at the end of season, that means sweetpotato production is available almost throughout the year. The beauty party of it is that it needs very little input. OFSP can grow with almost no fertilizer whatsoever. It is not sensitive to rain patterns. It is a resilient crop that can grow in hard conditions, even during drought. The ladies say, “I did not even have a mattress to sleep on,” or “I could not afford to pay school fees.” Now that the women can contribute financially it has changed the dynamic in the household. They frequently tell me, “My husband thought I was useless because I couldn’t contribute to the household income, now because of my constant income I’m the one paying for things.”
OFSP is not a crop that is grown and the seed is stored. It is a vine that continues growing until it is cut. It has to be planted within three days of cutting. Our farmers are now the main supplier of OFSP vines to local NGOs. Some farmers have bought houses in the urban centers. They are educating their children so that some even have children attending the university. This is all because we took a value chain approach. We’ve created markets and a demand for OFSP and it’s changing lives.
SUSTAIN is a 5-year partnership (2013-2018) coordinated by CIP and financed by the UK Department for International Development, 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.