Okot Thomas uses a hand hoe to prepare his soil for planting orange-fleshed sweet potato vines in his swampy field. Mr. Thomas is the head teacher at a primary school in Gulu district, Uganda.
He first heard about orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in 2015 when tuning into Radio Mega 103.2 FM. After being inspired to grow orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, he is both a teacher and a farmer.
Mr. Thomas lives with his wife and six children in Arut Central village. After seeing the benefits, Mr. Thomas is now promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in his area. He says: “I started with one-and-a-half acres, from which I harvested 50 bags last year. If you come [to my] home, you will enjoy orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and probably take some for your children too.”
He saves some vines from every harvest so that he doesn’t have to buy new vines from other farmers during the next planting period.
Along with his teaching salary, Mr. Thomas says growing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes is earning him a decent income. He explains: “In the open market, one bag of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes costs 75,000 shillings ($23 US), while a bag of the vines costs 20,000 shillings ($6 US).… A class teacher waits for a month to be paid, while a farmer can earn money almost daily.”
In 2015, Mr. Thomas sold 50 bags of vines worth 1,750,000 Uganda shillings ($560 US). He also supplied three bags to a hotel in his district for 225,000 Uganda shillings ($67 US), and has more orders from hotels.
Mr. Thomas says that both the skin and the inside of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are orange. But, he says, despite the different colour, the taste is delicious.
He explains that in his area, people use orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to make mandazi (a local snack of fried dough), porridge, and chapati. He adds: “I have learned how to process this potato into flour. It is also sliced and dried locally in the sun for a few days before being consumed. However, I am planning to buy a potato processing machine.”
Mr. Thomas is a member of a local association for growers of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. The association was formed to help farmers find better markets for their produce. He explains, ”We meet every Thursday … to review sales and supplies. Although prices differ, we fear middlemen.”
Mr. Thomas has shared his skill at growing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with several members of his community, including other head teachers and farmer groups.
Stephen Justin is an agricultural expert at HarvestPlus in Uganda. He says participatory radio campaigns recently conducted by Farm Radio International in collaboration with HarvestPlus have helped farmers like Mr. Thomas to acquire skills in growing and marketing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
Although Mr. Thomas sees a bright future in growing the crop, he says farmers face a number of challenges, including a shortage of vines for planting, lack of equipment, and domestic animals that destroy the vines.
He is planning to expand his farm to grow more orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and increase his market. He wants to buy oxen and become a well-known orange-fleshed sweet potato producer in his area.