Interview: “I’m proud and humbled to be leading some inspiring work”

“I’m proud and humbled to be leading some inspiring work”

Originally published by Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture


CIP focuses on two high-impact crops 


The International Potato Center (CIP*) celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. Dr. Barbara Wells has been Director General since February 2014. She recently told us why potatoes are so important, why sweet potatoes now also fascinate her, and what CIP’s future may hold.


To many people around the world, potatoes may seem rather dull. What makes them so fascinating for you? 


It all goes back to my childhood.  I was raised in mining camps high in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia. Potatoes were central to the diets and livelihoods ofim1 the region’s poor miners and farmers, their families and communities. Native potatoes, whether fresh or freezedried, were a staple of our own family meals.  The variety and diversity of potatoes have fascinated me ever since, as has their importance in Andean cultures going back some 4000 to 5000 years ago.  


What has it been like to reconnect with potatoes and Peru?  


When I joined CIP and returned to the Andes, I was reminded of the deep history and diversity of potatoes, and of their importance for human livelihoods. Reconnecting with Peru’s mountain culture and geography continues to be a delight. To me, the Andes offer some of the most beautiful landscapes and most wonderful people in the world.   


What is potato’s’ international importance today? 


From its Andean center of origin, the potato spread to become a staple food for poor families across the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa.  Today it is the world’s third most important food crop, behind rice and wheat. Potatoes feed more than a billion people. More than one-third of the harvest comes from smallholders. The crop has a staggering impact on food security, nutrition and lifting small farmers out of poverty.  


An orange crown jewel


But CIP looks beyond the crop in its name…


im2Yes: We also focus on sweet potato. Since joining the organization, I have a found a new fascination with this crop, and in particular with orange-fleshed sweet potato.  In my eyes, ‘OFSP’ is the crown jewel of the biofortified crop movement.  Together with our donors and partners, CIP has established clear evidence of its benefits. 100-125g OFSP per day meets small children’s Vitamin A needs, and helps eliminate childhood blindness. That is inspiring work to be leading!  


Was that what persuaded you to move from the private sector to the very different world of the CGIAR**? 


It wasn’t actually a matter of being “persuaded” to change sectors.  I chose to study agriculture and develop my agricultural career with a particular emphasis in developing countries. That decision stemmed from a personal commitment. From the outset, I wanted to help improve livelihoods and feed the world sustainably, wherever I worked. Many people who choose a similar professional path share that vision and passion. 


Over 10,000 varieties of two crops


That would leave you with a wide choice of employers. Why does the world need CIP? 


At the heart of it lies my observation above: Potato – and sweet potato, I should emphasize – play key roles in the lives of smallholders, and in feeding millions of people. But there is more to it than that. Both crops mature faster than cereals, and can therefore bridge what would otherwise be hunger months before the next grain harvest.  im3Furthermore, both crops are also highly resilient to extreme weather conditions. Potato is more water-efficient than most cereals, and sweet potato is much more resilient  to disasters like typhoons than crops that grow above ground. 


These characteristics will become even more important as global temperatures rise and climate shocks become more frequent. It is therefore vital that the world protects the diversity of potato and sweet potato germplasm for future generations. Our CIP genebank makes a key contribution to this task. It holds more than 4500 potato and 6000 sweet potato varieties.  


What were your first impressions of CIP, and how have these changed since joining? 


First and foremost, I have been most impressed by our team around the world.  We have 700 employees working in 30 countries. They are highly dedicated to improving poor people’s livelihoods. Before joining, I mainly knew CIP for its Latin American potato work. I now understand our global impact much better.  Our work along entire value chains dramatically enhances the lives of smallholders, particularly women. Seeing that first hand is both humbling and a great source of pride.  


Roots, tubers and gender


On the topic of female smallholders: CIP puts strong emphasis on gender equity. Why is that so important in root and tuber farming? 


Mainstreaming gender across our research is essential for impact as well as equity. Women are often the main producers, processors and beneficiaries of root and tuber crops. In Malawi, for example, women regard potato as a key cash and food crop. However, they rarely receive agronomic advice that would improve their yields.  Lack of commercial training also prevents them from participating fully in potential markets.  


The adoption of orange-fleshed sweet potato is a particularly important ‘gender’ case study.  Although sweet potato is a widely grown and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa, OFSP was previously not common.

Involving women in nutrition education and in vine production systems changed society’s attitudes.  CIP and partners’ OFSP work has now already benefited 2.2 million households in the region. 


CIP also stresses the need for “innovation and creativity across our business”. What does that mean in practice?


Reducing poverty and achieving food and nutrition security for small holder farmers and their families comes with major challenges. The only way that we can meet these challenges is to be innovative. We have to engage actively with our partners and the people whose livelihoods we seek to improve.  We have to look 20-30 years ahead, and be able to think ‘outside the box’. Most importantly, we need to listen: the best innovations tend to come from the farmers and building on each other’s ideas.


New partnerships and greater strength


How can CGIAR centers get more new varieties from R&D into smallholders’ hands? 


Partnerships, both public and private, play a central role. They can accelerate the arrival of more nutritious and climate-smart varieties in farmers’ fields. CIP relies strongly on local partners. They know their compatriots’ delivery systems, culture and consumer preferences. Such insights are invaluable both for breeding and delivery. As an example of the impact of our work: In China alone, smallholders now plant one of our varieties on over 400,000 hectares each year.


im4Hand in hand with cooperation goes capacitystrengthening. For many years now, CIP has used the model of ‘geographical breeding platforms’ for sweet potato in Sub-Saharan Africa. These platforms breed for specific local preferences and agro-ecologies. They attract breeders from many different countries, who then return home better able to deliver valuable crops to the communities they serve.


What role do you see for CIP partners such as the Syngenta Foundation (SFSA)?  


One frequent challenge in our work is ‘scaling’, i.e. ensuring impact on a large scale. SFSA is good at helping organizations like CIP build public and private

partnerships to enhance our ability to scale up innovations.  So far, we have worked together primarily on potato. I believe there are great opportunities to extend our collaboration to sweet potato.  


Where do you see CIP heading over the next five years? 


We have a strong foundation and a long history of improving the livelihoods of the world’s poor. I see that position strengthening further as we face new and evolving challenges. CIP is well placed to help achieve the System Level Outcomes of the CGIAR Strategic Results Framework, as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals***.  


How do you see the future of the CGIAR overall? 


The CGIAR has many centers and over 40 years of experience. This global partnership is a leading provider of agricultural research for development.  The CGIAR contributes to a global effort to reduce poverty and hunger, improve nutrition and reduce environmental degradation. I continue to see a strong and evolving need for this work; in a world challenged by climate change, we shall soon have to feed nine billion people.  




Barbara Wells has more than 30 years’ experience in developing commercial, technical and regulatory strategies for the launch of agricultural products. Before joining CIP, she was Vice President Global Strategy at Agrivida. The company develops feed-stocks for biofuels and bio-products. Prior to that she was CEO of ArborGen, a company selling over 350,000 forestry seedlings per year.  Wells holds a Ph.D. in Agronomy/Weed Science from Oregon State University. She grew up in Peru and Bolivia, was based in Brazil for several years, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Wells loves to travel and experience new cultures, and is a keen hiker and angler. “Most importantly”, she adds, “I treasure spending time with my husband and our girls whenever possible”.  





*** For information on System Level Outcomes and the CGIAR Strategic Results Framework, see; for more on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, visit 



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