Linking Farmers to Markets – Our Experiences in Developing Sweetpotato Value Chains in East and Central Africa

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Sarah Mayanja – I am an AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) Fellow, and work with CIP as a research associate. I am going to share our experiences on developing Orange-Fleshed Sweetpotato (OFSP) value chains in East Africa, a story we wrote together with my colleague, Margaret McEwan.


A few decades ago, researchers identified a natural food based ‘key’ to combat Vitamin A deficiency: The Orange-Fleshed Sweetpotato. This was after previous efforts to address this life-threatening challenge in young children had not had sustained success; yet over 27 million children in East and Central Africa were suffering from Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD)-related diseases.


OFSP is easy to grow in many parts of the region, matures in a short time, and children really like it. Scientists calculated that only 125g of OFSP provides enough beta carotene (the vitamin A precursor) to address the daily Vitamin A needs of a child under five years. Secondly, OFSP was a much a cheaper source as compared to the usual sources – milk, eggs, or even Vitamin A capsules, since sweetpotato is well integrated in many farming systems in the region.


Popularizing OFSP:

The challenge came with dissemination and uptake – how would one easily reach rural and urban households, to ensure that they had a continuous supply of OFSP? While the white-fleshed sweetpotato varieties are widely grown and consumed, there were initial challenges with the acceptability of OFSP – though children liked it (because of its color, taste and softness), many adults did not like it because of its different smell and low dry matter content. Secondly, though it is higher yielding than many existing white-fleshed varieties, the early OFSP varieties were more susceptible to diseases and drought. Thirdly, just like its white fleshed cousins, it is very bulky and highly perishable. Lastly, sweetpotato is largely considered to be a woman’s crop, and therefore is not usually a priority crop in terms of land and labor allocation, as well as income generation.

Despite the above challenges, we none the less thought that the best way of increasing utilization and uptake of OFSP, was through the market. Hence to the market we went.


Scaling up OFSP innovations in ECA

In 2012, CIP in partnership with 6 institutions in Kenya (UCRC and KARI), Tanzania (LZARDI and Kolping) and Uganda (Gulu University and BRAC) used two approaches to foster stronger relationships amongst OFSP chain actors i.e. producers, traders, processors, consumers. These approaches required that we, the partners, developed a capacity strengthening strategy where it was clear that we were only the facilitators and mentors of a process and that the real power to make significant changes in the way sweetpotato trade was done lay with the chain actors, chain supporters and consumers. We also quickly realized that we had to ‘listen’ to the subtle and usually, unsaid things, (e.g.: what caused the sudden change between actors who did not want to speak to each other, to start working closely together?) and have the flexibility to change or even adopt new strategies during implementation.

So what where these approaches?
One of them was the Agricultural Innovations Systems (AIS): where value chain (VC) actors play a key role, finding new ways to interact and act together aiming to improve the system they are part of. Embedded in this, was our second approach: the Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA). The PMCA is a systemic approach that promotes innovation and competitiveness in market chains. In its 3 distinctive phases, it enables (1) facilitators to understand the market chain through a quick diagnostic study, (2) actors to jointly analyze market opportunities and (3) set in place innovations, through implementation of joint business plans.

While promoting market development, we were also cognizant of the fact that:

  • Our crop was largely a woman’s crop – commercialization would hence entail bringing men on board since they control resources like land and labour within families. However men had to be carefully brought on board to ensure that women and youth were not in participation and benefits thereof.
  • OFSP was considered to be a poor person’s crop – hence the need to change attitudes about this – and identify strategies to portray it as a potential income generating crop
  • Its bulkiness and perishability – required for good post-harvest handling and value addition strategies
  • Seed first – without robust seed systems, most of the strategies would come to naught in the absence of timely supply of seed at the right time, and in the desired volumes and quality.

With this in mind, we identified the need to specifically address behaviour change issues. In our – Communication for Behaviour Change (CBC) strategy, we engaged an expert who trained and supported our implementing partners to develop strategies to address the perception of sweetpotato as a low income generator, as well as palatability and nutritious prospects of OFSP.


Putting knowledge into practice:

Armed with this knowledge and strategies, CIP trained facilitators (selected from the implementing partners) in a phased manner and supported them implement the PMCA within their country contexts. During PMCA Phase 1, they carried out quick diagnostic studies of the chain, and shared the results to various market chain actors and supporters at a “showcase” event. At the event, the VC actors were encouraged to form groups around potential market opportunities. In Kenya, three thematic groups were formed i.e. vines, roots and processed products, while in Tanzania and Uganda, two groups were formed – the vines and roots group, and the processors group.

In Phase 2, these thematic groups were facilitated to jointly analyze and select a business opportunity. Through the various meetings, actors interacted, shared and learnt from each other, on aspects of the identified business opportunity. In Kenya, the vines group quickly formed an association – the Gem Ugunja Sweetpotato Seed Growers Association (GUSSGA), and strategized to multiply and sell OFSP vines to various market outlets including to OFSP root producers, cattle breeders and organizations promoting food security.


Sarah (in blue) in a market
Sarah (in blue) in a market


Does gender matter?

During the course of building and strengthening actor platforms, we realized that there was an urgent need to engender our PMCA. With the aid of a gender coach, we identified gender tools that enabled the chain actors to analyze gender based constraints, and select gender sensitive strategies that were integrated in the business plans. Some of the strategies developed include gender sensitive loan product that was available to OFSP female and youth growers, traders and processors in Western Kenya. In Tanzania, a couple (social entrepreneurs) that was already processing OFSP products, worked with individual women processors and trained them to improve the quality of their products, that enabled them jointly access larger markets


And behavior change…

In Uganda, a cooking demonstration at a school enabled farmers regain a contract to supply OFSP roots that they had lost as a result of students rejecting the roots. The school cook did not have the knowledge needed to cook OFSP and often tended to overcook them.


Getting to the market – some results

As a result of implementing the gender sensitive business plans, a number of innovations were developed that improved market access for the smallholder farmers. These included wooden crates for transporting OFSP to the market, branded vine bags with information on variety, planting density and maturity, improved branding of snacks like OFSP flour, cakes, bread and crisps, among others. GUSSGA has enabled over 200 women and men farmers to make money from sale of vines, while in Uganda, a small group of 35 women processor (KIFPA) has recorded improved sales as a result of improved quality of products due to assistance from the large processor who was part of their thematic group. In Tanzania, the vines and roots thematic group has received support from the area MP to form an association, and have embarked on supply of OFSP to schools and hostels near Bukoba town.


Sharing our lessons

So what have we learnt? While facilitation is key to fostering market chain actor innovation platforms, building a strategy to put the actors in the ‘driving seat’ as early as possible is very important, as it builds capacity for innovation, leadership and continuity. And, innovation brokers could be facilitators, chain actors or supporters. We also learnt that being gender blind curtails innovative capacities, as one size can never fit all. Female and male actors may require different strategies to enhance their participation and benefit from multi-stakeholder marketing initiatives. And, when financial training takes their needs into consideration women actors can compute and follow the financial sections of a business plan (even when semi-literate) as well as men. Private sector engagement is key, especially actors that engage more closely with the consumers, since they are the ones that quickly hear the changing demands of the consumers. Finally, as R&D actors, we have to be open to learn from the chain actors, since they are the ‘gurus’ of the market. To share our learning, we worked with ‘Well told story’ and have 7 developed ‘learning cases’, which are available on the sweetpotato knowledge portal:


Text by Sarah Mayanja and Margaret McEwan

farmers, ofsp, sweetpotato, value chains