Sweetpotato Seed Systems to Improve Nutrition in Northern Ethiopia

Dr. Beyene Demstu is a researcher in biotechnology, based at the Mekele Agricultural Research Institute, Tigray Region, Ethiopia. He was speaking in Kigali, Rwanda, where he was attending the annual face-face-meeting of the Seed Systems Community of Practice. The meeting, which took place on 28 and 29 May 2015, brought together 40 sweetpotato specialists from all corners of Africa to tackle the issues around farmers’ seed constraints.

His career is a calling and a tradition. Farming is in his blood. “I live in the northern part of Ethiopia, where agriculture has been practiced for more than 3,000 years.” In 1984, a devastating famine ravaged his motherland Ethiopia. His home area in the northern region was also affected. Demstu survived on bread for over 11 months. Others were not as lucky. Nationwide, over one million people starved to death in less than a year. People migrated and family separated. “There are some families who still don’t know where their loved ones are,” Demstu says. These experiences strengthened his resolve and interest to work on improving seed varieties.

Dr. Beyene Demtsu of Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute (TARI)
Dr. Beyene Demtsu of Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) asks a question during a learning visit to Rubona Research Station in Rwanda

Sweetpotato is new to my region but it has a big potential

Demstu has been a breeder for over twenty years, working on biotechnology and tissue culture, with a focus on highland legumes, wheat and barley. Three years ago, he started research work on sweetpotato. He is convinced of the value of promoting sweetpotato, in particular the Vitamin A rich orange-fleshed varieties. “Sweetpotato is very new to my region but it has a very big potential. Malnutrition of children under five years is 30-40% and most of it is Vitamin A deficiency. With sweetpotato, you can feed the children and improve their nutrition status.”
In collaboration with the International Potato Center, Demstu is working on methods to increase the multiplication rate of sweetpotato so that there is more, good quality seed to reach more households and to avoid future hunger. “All I do is to try and assist farmers get clean planting material.”

The Community of Practice a source of experience and knowledge

As a member of the Seed Systems Community of Practice, Demstu is tapping into useful knowledge on biotechnology and sweetpotato. “I do not have to reinvent the wheel, just listen and learn from those who have more experience and knowledge,” he explains. One of the greatest outcomes, according to Demstu, is how the relationship with scientists across Africa has facilitated the release of new sweetpotato varieties in his country.

SPHI Sweetpotato Seed Systems COP - Kigali, Rwanda
Dr. Beyene Demtsu of Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) and Antony Masinde of Farm Concern International introduce themselves ahead of the Seed Systems Community of Practice Meeting in Kigali (Credit: C. Bukania)

Improving sweetpotato production is only one step. He knows that it is not going to be easy to get his community to eat more sweetpotato, but knowing its value, he is ready to do all it takes to get the new crop accepted. “It is a crop that can improve food and nutrition security and help to build a brilliant future generation.”

The Seed Systems Community of Practice is part of the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI). SPHI is a 10-year, multi donor initiative that seeks to reduce child malnutrition and improve smallholder incomes through the effective production and expanded use of sweetpotato. It aims to build consumer awareness or sweetpotato’s nutritional benefits, diversify its use, and increase market opportunities, especially in expanding urban markets of Sub-Saharan Africa. The SPHI is expected to improve the lives of 10 million households by 2020 in 17 target countries.

Members of the Seed Systems Community of Practice hold discussions during their annual meeting in Kigali, Rwanda
Members of the Seed Systems Community of Practice hold discussions during their annual meeting in Kigali, Rwanda

Northern Ethiopia