Modern breeding is “all about efficiency” with SweetGAINS in Uganda

The Sweetpotato Genetic Advances and Innovative Seed Systems (SweetGAINS) project is an ambitious three-year initiative designed to modernize sweetpotato breeding in Africa. It seeks to improve breeding operations and methods, ensure integration between breeding outputs and early generation seed availability, and form a strong and dynamic community of practice for sharing knowledge and experiences.

 The project brings together scientists of various disciplines from the International Potato Center (CIP), national agricultural research institutions, and partner institutions in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Vivian Atakos, CIP’s Regional Communication Specialist for Africa, recently spoke with Dr. Bernard Yada from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), a SweetGAINS collaborator, to understand the scope and importance of this program to his work.

Bernard Yada (left) a plant breeder-geneticist at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda

Q: What is the contribution of sweetpotatoes to Uganda’s agri-food systems?

Yada: Sweetpotato is produced by over 80% of farmers.  Farmers love it as it can be grown in two seasons. Currently, it’s a major relief commodity being considered by development actors. It’s a major food crop for Uganda and the third most important food crop after banana and cassava.  It’s a highly nutritious crop.

Q: Given the importance of this crop to the country, what is the major hindrance to productivity? What problem are you trying to solve as a breeder?

Yada: The sweetpotato weevil is a deterrent to productivity. In more severe cases, it can lead to 100% yield loss among farmers. With more and more droughts being experienced, [breeders] are looking to provide early maturing varieties. The sweetpotato weevil thrives in warm weather.  This is another reason why we need [early planting], so farmers can harvest before droughts become severe and create the perfect conditions for sweetpotato weevils.

Also, existing varieties in Uganda were the cream-, yellow- and white-fleshed varieties.  We needed to improve this in terms of earliness, virus resistance and nutrition (hence the introduction of pro-vitamin A varieties in recent years).

Q: Looking at the objectives of the SweetGAINS project, what does it mean to modernize breeding operations?

Yada: It’s all about efficiency – genotyping, phenotyping the analytic aspects, which includes design of trials from a breeding base such as sweetpotato, and then doing all the related analytics and bio-informatics efficiently from the base. This assures timeliness and efficiency in developing varieties to replace the leading varieties in the market. Subsequently, following release, the variety can be adopted for commercialization and large-scale production.

Gender responsiveness also a key consideration in modernizing breeding operations. As a breeder how do we ensure the products we are producing meet the needs of all genders?  It has to go right from development of product profiles—the traits included should actually be gender responsive. They should reflect the preferences of everyone. We are now ensuring active involvement of both genders in the breeding cycle, including the selection process so that when the product comes out, women and men are more likely to adopt the variety for production. If we don’t do that, the variety may not be suitable for one gender meaning you will have failed in the modernization and commercialization processes. So, both genders must be involved right from the start of the product profile, across the breeding stage gate and breeding cycle, during the selection process up to release, adoption and production for commercialization.

Q: What is the main value that the long-term relationship with CIP represents for Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) /NARO?

Yada: CIP’s collaboration with NACRRI has entailed population improvement. Breeding sweetpotatoes resistant to the sweetpotato virus and weevil is key to our work. Working closely with CIP, we are able to improve varieties to ensure key desirable traits are achieved – higher nutrient values and resistance to viruses and diseases. Subsequently, NACRRI releases those varieties. Also, under seed systems, we are now able to produce quality declared seed.

Q: Tell me of a moment when you were proud as a breeder of sweetpotatoes.

Yada: The fact that, presently, agencies – both government and nongovernmental – are looking for quality sweetpotato varieties to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they call our Director General and he directs them to the NaCRRI Director who asks them to talk to the sweetpotato breeder – me – about high quality sweetpotato varieties for production and response to COVID… that makes me feel proud. We have done some work that is benefitting the community we serve.

Dr. Bernard Yada is a Senior Research Officer, Plant Breeder-Geneticist, Root Crops Program, National Crops Resources Research Institute, Uganda