Sweetpotato in Sub-Saharan Africa

CIP’s multi-stakeholder partnership program Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI) has set a goal of reaching 10 million households across 17 Sub-Saharan Africa countries over the next 10 years to achieve a widespread uptake of sweetpotato that will significantly reduce malnutrition among children under the age of five.

Sweetpotato is the 3rd most important food crop in 7 Eastern and Central African countries – outranking cassava and maize. It ranks 4th in importance in 6 Southern African countries and is number 8 in 4 of those in West Africa.

Sweetpotato requires fewer inputs and less labor than other staple crops. It tolerates marginal growing conditions, such as dry spells or poor soil. Sweetpotato provides more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice, or cassave. Its ability to produce better yields in poor conditions with less labor makes sweetpotato particularly suitable as a crop for households threatened by civil disorder, migration, or diseases such as AIDS.

Sweetpotato is an important food crop in Sub-Saharan Africa (PHOTO BY S. TUMWEGAMIRE)An estimated 43 million African children under the age of five are threatened by vitamin A deficiency, a condition causing blindness, disease and premature death. CIP scientists and extension workers promote the consumption of the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) varieties known to be high in beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) in a food based approach to combating vitamin A deficiency. The challenge is to breed OFSP varieties that meet consumer preferences and can compete with the traditional white- and yellow-fleshed varieties.

The potential of sweetpotato has remained largely untapped in Sub-Saharan Africa. Average yields are 10-times lower among small-scale farmers than those seen among commercial growers with access to irrigation, fertilizers, and credit. CIP is tackling this “yield gap” between subsistence and commercial producers; providing clean planting material and locally adapted improved varieties, tackling damage caused by sweetpotato weevils and emerging pests, and training farmers in new improved agronomic practices.

Grown mainly in small plots by women, sweetpotato is often characterized as a poor person’s food crop. However, production in Sub-Saharan Africa is expanding faster than any other major crop in the region and important shifts are taking place in the types of cultivars being grown. The crop’s rapid expansion over the past decade is due to a variety of factors, including changes in cropping patterns driven by major disease problems with Africa’s cassava and banana crops. Other contributing factors include declining farm size, economic volatility, and growth in commercial production.

CIP priorities for this area include

  • Breeding Methods and materials
  • Transgenics and Bt weevil resistant sweetpotato for Africa
  • Seed systems
  • Value chains

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