Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Breed sweet potatoes with maximum benefits

    Esther Nakkazi

    08/06/15
The taste of a particular food is relevant to how much and how often we eat it. Well, I do eat sweet potatoes as often as when I chance on them listed on a menu or when they are plenty and cheap, especially during their harvest season. I am particular about their taste, colour, firmness and sometimes the shape.
 
When I am in the market I select straight sweet potatoes, which are easy to peel. I love the orange-fleshed ones, but I also prefer that they are not too soft or too sweet.
 
I attended the 14th Annual Sweet Potato Breeders’ Meeting last week (June 2-5) in Uganda, and got to know just how much time and energy plant breeders put into breeding for me the sweet potato I prefer. It’s called breeding for the end user.

So it might be the right sweet potato for me in terms of colour, shape, size, sweetness and firmness but it will also have to be drought-tolerant, pest- and disease-resistant, high-yielding, have a long shelf life and grow fast.

Esther Nakkazi

 
The meeting, which was organised by the Peru-headquartered International Potato Center, was attended by sweet potato breeders from 12 African countries —  including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda —  and scientists from the new Genomic Tools for Sweetpotato Improvement Project.
 
The sweet potato is an important crop. It provides a source of carbohydrates, income for small-scale farmers. The vines, roots and peels are used for animal feed mostly for pigs. But sweet potato’s potential has not been fully exploited.
 
Imagine China, the number one producer of sweet potato, produces 117 million metric tonnes annually, followed by Uganda with only 2.5 million metric tonnes. Even if African countries combined, their total sweet potato production would still be meagre compared to China’s massive production.
 
Breeders have a daunting task; they do not have to produce varieties that only satisfy our taste buds, but they must also look into issues such as climate change, pests and diseases.
 
So it might be the right sweet potato for me in terms of colour, shape, size, sweetness and firmness but it will also have to be drought-tolerant, pest- and disease-resistant, high-yielding, have a long shelf life and grow fast.
 
How they can achieve all that in one type of sweet potato may not be possible. But like I said, they look at the end user. West African sweet potato breeders produce sweet potato that is dry, not sweet or curvy. Why? The sauce used to eat with it is salty. East African breeders produce sweet potatoes that are dry and moderately sweet. Because of the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency, a silent killer in Sub-Saharan Africa, every breeder has to have beta-carotene in the sweet potato. It is a sure way of saving lives.
 
According to the WHO, about 250 million children worldwide are vitamin A-deficient, with most pregnant women in areas where these children live having similar fate.  The WHO adds that half of 250,000 to 500,000 children who lose their sight due to vitamin A deficiency every year die within 12 months of becoming blind. Just eating a sweet potato could save a life.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.