SweetGAINS breeding and seed systems specialists in West Africa forge ahead

While the impacts of COVID-19 have imposed restrictions on mobility and field work around the world, these obstacles have not deterred conversations on the need for the continuous development and dissemination of nutritious and productive sweetpotato varieties for West Africa.

Over the past two months, a Breeding and Seed Community of Practice (CoP), with representatives from eight countries, has been meeting virtually to discuss ideas for increasing sweetpotato yields while developing new market opportunities and value chains for sweetpotato use.

The Breeding and Seed CoP is part of the International Potato Center’s (CIP) SweetGAINS project, which seeks to increase the quality, use and adoption of sweetpotato throughout sub-Saharan Africa to promote the crop’s nutritious content and unique ability to grow in challenging climate conditions.

Breeding is a critical factor for increasing sweetpotato yields, and combined with improved seed systems, the results will mean enhanced nutrition, incomes, and climate change resilience for millions of smallholder farmers.

With these ideas in mind, the CoP is a means for breeding and seed specialists to share ideas and field experiences to collectively learn and inform each other, while also drawing lessons from experts about new directions at the leading edge of sweetpotato agricultural research.

“We want to see a critical mass of scientists engaged in the development and production of sweetpotato,” says Dr. Abdual Jalloh, the Director of Research and Innovation for the West and Central Africa Council for Agriculture Research and Development (CORAF). “The work of our group ensures that we make meaningful steps together to serve poor farming families.” At the CoP’s latest meeting, Jalloh discussed CORAF’s vision for the 23 countries under its mandate and the key role sweetpotato can play in meeting their goals.

Breeding is also key to developing varieties of sweetpotato to meet consumer demands, which will ensure their adoption and use, according to SweetGAINS project leader, Dr. Hugo Campos.

“The goal is not just to create genetic gains but to deliver them to smallholder farmers in a way that creates value. Reaching this goal means understanding what qualities are desired in the marketplace and building seed systems and value chains to deliver those varieties.”

At the most recent CoP meeting in June, scientists and extension agents discussed statistical tools for improved data analysis. Invited speakers delivered talks on establishing cultures of excellence within breeding operations and improved trial designs for testing varieties with farmers and consumers. Members of the CGIAR’s Excellence in Breeding platform also participated in the CoP, leading discussions on target population environment and developing more effective product profiles.

At the meeting’s conclusion, the CoP renewed its pledge to identify and capitalize on new opportunities for harnessing the potential of sweetpotato to transform and strengthen regional food economies. CIP and its SweetGains project will continue to provide support through online fora and collaborative breeding work with national and regional research institutions.

SweetGAINS also receives valuable support from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Together with CIP, they provide training and research support to all CoP members from partner organizations in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.