Zimbabwe: Sweet potatoes replacing maize meal on urban Zimbabwe plates (Trust)

| March 31, 2014

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As the morning sun rises, a shirtless Daniel Sambani digs the earth, creating rows of neat mounds of soil.

The land Mr. Sambani is preparing is one of many small plots in Bulawayo that has been planted with sweet potatoes. The sweet potato is a traditional rural staple that is becoming more popular in Zimbabwe’s cities as the increasingly unpredictable weather drives up the price of maize meal.

Mr. Sambani is planting his sweet potatoes during the rainy season. At this time of the year, urban families often struggle with empty pantries. Many take up small-scale farming to feed their families and make a little money by selling any surplus.

Mr. Sambani says: “This [planting] season, I have looked for more space to plant sweet potatoes and I think this will help keep hunger at bay. I don’t think I will be buying any bread or mealie meal [coarse maize flour] in the coming months.”

Rural families eat sweet potatoes regularly, with foods like bread too expensive. But rising food prices and lower incomes have forced urban residents to change their eating habits, and make the starch-rich sweet potato a regular feature of urban breakfasts.

Food prices remain high in Zimbabwe despite the introduction of the US dollar as the national currency in 2009. The government is promoting both rural and urban farming to cushion consumers and reduce the amount of food they need to buy. As a result, many are transforming any available land into farming plots.

Tapuwa Gomo is a development expert and researcher. He says it makes financial sense for farmers to shift to sweet potatoes as a dietary staple.

Mr. Gomo says, “Sweet potatoes generally serve as a source of starch and [are] known for having better nutritional content [when] compared to bread.”He argues that growing sweet potatoes must be encouraged, not only for their economic value but also for their nutritional value.

According to the International Potato Center, the sweet potato is a hugely productive and relatively easy-to-grow plant. It is the fifth most important crop in developing countries − after rice, wheat, maize and cassava. The organization indicates that production is increasing rapidly across Africa.

Nigel Makumbe is an agriculture extension officer with Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture. He says growing tubers such as sweet potatoes is being encouraged as a response to food insecurity in the face of unpredictable rains.

Mr. Makumbe adds, “Sweet potatoes and cassava are being shifted from being mere rural culinary preferences to wider availability, especially now that urban farming is being encouraged.”

Small-scale farmers like Mr. Sambani hope that the introduction of disease-resistant varieties will mean better yields. In the meantime, he says, “I will certainly be selling some of my sweet potatoes because not everyone planted this crop.”

To read the full article on which this story was based, go to: http://www.trust.org/item/20140305110539-ux8zp