Frafra potato: Bringing a useful crop back from the edge of extinction

    | March 30, 2009

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    Community radio producer Lydia Ajono is so passionate about frafra potatoes that she calls this script her “dream story.” The frafra potato is a hardy crop traditionally grown in the northern regions of Ghana. Though it has been important for ensuring food security during the dry season, the frafra potato is now endangered. Ms. Ajono opens this script with childhood memories of her grandmother preparing frafra potatoes and telling her they would protect her from diseases and bring out her beauty. She goes on to interview people who are determined to revive this important crop.

    In honour of the International Year of the Potato (2008), the McCain Foundation generously supported the production of six scripts on potatoes and root crops such as yams and sweet potatoes. This script on the frafra potato is the last of the six scripts. The other five scripts can be found online, as follows:

    Mr. and Mrs. Potato of the Year! (Package 86, Script 10, December 2008)
    Research in Rwanda aims for a good harvest of sweet potatoes (Package 86, Script 11, December 2008)
    Orange sweetpotatoes (Package 86, Script 12, December 2008)
    Late Blight of Potato (FRW#49, December 2008)
    Sweet potatoes in Uganda (FRW#50, January 2009)

    Notes to broadcaster

    In recent years, people in northern Ghana have faced food and water shortages every year. The United Nations Development Programme has identified the three northern regions of Ghana – Upper East, Upper West, and Northern – as the poorest in the country. Food insecurity is one of the biggest challenges faced by poor smallholder families. Food insecurity at the household level can result in malnutrition and diseases related to malnutrition in children. The best way to fight malnutrition is to encourage farmers to grow short, medium, and long-term crops that can support their families all year round.

    Most of the indigenous crops in the northern regions of Ghana, including frafra potatoes, are gradually vanishing. This is unfortunate, because the frafra potato is highly nutritious and, until several years ago, was one of the crops used to cope with the hungry season.

    In this script, Lydia Ajono, a community radio producer from Simli Radio in northern Ghana, visits memory lane and talks about her own early experience with the frafra potatoes that were cultivated in the Upper East region of Ghana. Today, the crop is so endangered that some young farmers do not know how to cultivate it. In researching this script, Ms. Ajono talked to some individuals and agricultural experts to find out whether the crop is still being grown. She found that few farmers cultivate it.

    This script is based on actual interviews conducted in northern Ghana. To produce this script at your station, you might choose to use voice actors to represent the people who are interviewed, and change the wording in the script to make it suitable for your local situation. If you do so, please make sure to tell your audience at the beginning of the program that the voices are those of actors, not the original people involved in the interview, and that the program has been adapted for your audience, but is based on real interviews. Or, you might use this script as inspiration for researching which traditional crops in your area are endangered, and how they might contribute to food security.

    Host: Today, I am privileged to tell my dream story of the food I always loved to eat as a child: frafra potato. Over the past 20 years, the food has almost disappeared from the tables of smallholder families in the Northern region of Ghana, and in particular in the Frafra-speaking people of the Upper East region of Ghana.

    My story starts in a small-scale farmer’s household in the village of Balungu in the Talensi District of the Upper East region of Ghana, with the experience of my grandmother Ma-Nam.

    Grandmother Ma-Nam prepared the meal for the morning and afternoon made of frafra potatoes, shea butter oil, pepper, and salt. She started preparing the potatoes at five o’clock in the morning.

    After she washed the potatoes several times, grandmother Ma-Nam used her small mortar to carefully pound them to remove the skin, which revealed the white flesh inside. Then she carefully placed them in the pot, ready for cooking.

    Sometimes, in order to involve us kids in preparing the potatoes, she would heap a basket full of frafra potatoes on the floor at the corner of the compound. We used our feet to remove the skin, excitedly competing with each other to see who could do the most work.

    The potatoes were boiled for about 50 minutes or so, and we children were happy to eat our favourite early morning meal. In fact, this was sometimes our last food until the evening meal of tuozafi, a soup made from millet flour, vegetables, and groundnut paste.

    My grandmother said that frafra potatoes were good for our growing bodies and protected us from many diseases. To the girls, grandmother said, eating potatoes will bring out your beauty. To the boys, she said that their appearance would be pleasant to attract females.

    By the beginning of September, fresh frafra potatoes were always in the local markets. This was the time when grandmother Ma-Nam would pound fresh potatoes for the morning and afternoon meals. She would parboil or partially boil some and dry others to store for the hungry season.

    Reflecting on what my grandmother told me 20 years ago about this wonderful crop that had all we needed to stay healthy and strong, I realize that today the story is different. Frafra potato is fast disappearing from the villages, not only in Balungu but in the whole of the Upper East region of Ghana.

    My brief research found that the crop is not well known among farmers in the Northern region of Ghana, not even by agricultural extension workers. There is some indigenous knowledge and oral history of the frafra potato, but not much has been done by the agricultural services to write down information about the crop.

    So I started collecting interviews in an attempt to tell my story about frafra potato. My first contact was with my Auntie Hajia Tameiko, a renowned Tamale-based herbalist, who is currently an advocate for the protection of endangered plant and crop species in the Northern region of Ghana.

    Please join me at Hajia Tameiko’s house in the city of Tamale.

    Host: What is so important about frafra potatoes that you think they should be saved from extinction?

    Hajia: We call the frafra potato pessa in the Frafra language. And pessa has a lot of benefits for our people. The most important are its medicinal benefits for children.

    Host: What does the frafra potato look like?

    Hajia: Pessa are just like yams, but smaller, about the size of nutmeg. Pessa is lower in starch than yams and highly nutritious. It is grown in mounds, and when it is well-cultivated, you can harvest one mound and get about 50 kilos of potatoes.

    Host: Auntie, you deal with many women and their children’s health. What medicinal properties are in frafra potatoes that make them so valuable as family food?

    Hajia: If I was going to list all the medicinal benefits of pessa, we would not have the time. But just to mention a few benefits, it has many nutrients that protect children from ailments such as stomach pains and fevers. Different people may, however, use it for different ailments. Frafra potatoes are eaten by children, or the leaves are used to prepare an herbal drink, for deworming and for indigestion. The dried potatoes are soaked for a few minutes to soften the skin and reduce the cooking time before adding to bambara beans and cooking. This is also a children’s food. I delivered eight children and I fed them with food made from pessa porridge, and pessa in vegetable soup and cakes, which protected them from diseases.

    Host: I understand that the leaves are useful for the treatment of dysentery.

    Hajia: Yes, in our tradition we treat dysentery with it. We boil the leaves, and either drink the liquid or add some groundnut paste to it and make a meal for the sick person. It stops the dysentery. At the same time, it energizes the person. Even if we just boil the pessa without peeling them, filter the water through cheesecloth and drink it at intervals, the dysentery or diarrhea will disappear. Like all medicines, one needs to take the right quantities, so it is advisable to take it in moderation. If you have local experts like me near you, please ask them for advice on quantities.

    Host: What is your experience with growing frafra potatoes?

    Hajia: I grow and process pessa with my family. Pessa likes loamy soils and moderate moisture. I plant them in ridges or mounds. The harvest from a cluster of pessa in a mound can be about 50 kilos. Altogether, I may harvest a ban full of pessa, which could be about 100 to 200 kilos. (Editor’s note: a “ban” is a small locally-built mud hut for storing food.)

    I am a strong advocate for the protection of endangered plants and crops such as pessa. I have been talking to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and encouraging them to support farmers – especially farmers in the Upper East region – to cultivate pessa because, in this region, it may even have higher yields than yams.

    Host: The frafra potato may be going extinct because it is considered a women’s crop. The men always left it for women to cultivate, while they grew crops such as soya beans and bambara beans, which have a ready market. It is said that women have not managed it well, and that is why it is dying out. Do you think this is true?

    Hajia: I do not think it’s true that women are not able to manage the production of frafra potato. Women are the most efficient farm managers. The challenges faced by women in farming have been access to credit and marketing.

    Host: What emergency measures could be put in place to save frafra potatoes?

    Hajia: I have always told the government through the Regional Agricultural offices that there is a need to strongly promote production of indigenous crops such as frafra potato, which do not need chemical fertilizers and, if properly managed, will support small farmers and their families to fight food shortages and hunger.

    Host: Hajia Salamatu Tameiko is not alone in advocating for the protection of endangered crops such as frafra potatoes. Rovas Adagwine is an extension officer with the Tamale Presbyterian Church Agriculture project. He also thinks that the frafra potato is the best crop to ensure food security for rural families and reduce poverty in the region. Listen while he gives us some basic information on how to grow the crop.

    Rovas Adagwine: Frafra potatoes do not need fertile soil in order to thrive or grow well. They can do very well on lands with low fertility, even though they do much better on soils with high organic matter. They do not need chemical fertilizers. They can be stored in the ground like yams, and removed when needed.

    Host: How are they seeded?

    Rovas Adagwine: They are grown from seed tubers which have begun sprouting, and are then wrapped with grass and watered once a week until transplanting. After harvesting, farmers store the smallest tubers to use as seed tubers. The seed tubers are sometimes dried and put into a pot sealed with cow dung for the next season or placed in a cooler area in order to keep them healthy as a seed. For instance, in the Upper East region, farmers use millet straw to cover the seeds, and leave them in a cool place. During the rains, they will sprout. Then, the seedlings are planted on raised beds. The crop is planted between the months of June to July. Frafra potato takes 100 days until it is ready to harvest.

    Host: Are they easy to grow?

    Rovas Adagwine: Preparing the soil to grow frafra potatoes is very tedious and labour intensive. Making raised ridges or mounds sometimes requires more farm hands, depending on the size of the farm. The seedlings are planted 15 centimetres apart. Farmers seem to have lost interest in the crop.

    Host: Why do you think have they lost interest?

    Rovas Adagwine: This is because these days many farmers plough large areas of land to grow grain, and think of all crops as cash crops, and not as household food. The other problem is storage. If you harvest a lot, storage is a problem. Frafra potato will either sprout or rot if stored fresh for a long time, and most farmers find it difficult to sell it immediately after harvest. Frafra is perishable when the rains are still falling and there is not enough sunlight to dry them. There is not a very big market for the crop. In spite of that, I see frafra potatoes as a crop that agricultural development workers should promote. It can even be cultivated in the back garden – you do not need much land to grow it. A two metre by three metre piece of land is big enough. Older people who cannot walk far can easily grow it. It can fight hunger. It doesn’t need a lot of water, so it is easy to manage in the backyard garden.

    Host: Mr. Rovas has explained why farmers have not cultivated frafra potatoes in large quantities in recent years. Storage and farm management issues have contributed to low interest in the crop. Nevertheless, modern technology has made storage easier and more manageable. Some women’s groups use solar driers for food processing and storage.

    Madam Borbor Ibrahim in Tamale has been processing food for three years now. She dries fruits, vegetables, yams, and potatoes such as frafra potatoes. I talked to Madam Borbor at her factory where she processes frafra potatoes and trains young girls to solar dry foods using hygienic methods. She tells us how the solar drier has helped decrease post-harvest crop losses.

    Madam Borbor: (Showing the host around the processing area) This is where we wash the raw food before processing. We then put it on this table and wash it with soap. Then, we wash it again with a little bleach to rinse off dirt and flies and all kinds of impurities. Then we go round to the other side of the room, which is the final stage, and use the driers. These are the driers (sound of rolling equipment). I usually employ four people, but right now I have only two workers who handle the washing.

    Host: Hajia Salamatu Tameiko told us that one of her favourite foods is pessa. How do you process it?

    Madam Borbor: We dry it. During the rainy season there is a lot of pessa, and we dry it. From August onward we get so much of it. It is out of season during the dry season, and this is the time that women like to buy it and prepare it for the family. If the government would support the solar drying system and encourage more women to use solar driers, it would help us a lot.

    Host: Frafra potatoes are one of the crops that are reserved for women farmers in northern Ghana. Fabiana Amozim is the President of the Christian Mothers Association, and a caterer. She explains the benefits of frafra potatoes and calls for more support for women to cultivate the crop.

    (Speaking to Madam Fabiana) We are talking about a crop that is disappearing from our food table and markets, and which is known as frafra potato. That is the agricultural name, but I know it from childhood as pessa. What can you say about it?

    Madam Fabiana: In our area, pessa is boiled and added to groundnut soup.

    Host: What are the benefits?

    Madam Fabiana: Pessa has many benefits. After boiling pessa, you can mash it and use it like yam balls. You can also use it as pudding by adding eggs, and in stew or groundnut soup after boiling it. It is good for infants. I have tried it and I know it is good. Farmers should produce more, especially now that the rains are always falling heavily during the period that the crop is planted. If the farmers produce it, I am sure it would help women to cope with hunger during the lean season. The agricultural people should promote it, and support farmers to grow it to supplement yams, which are getting expensive.

    Host: More women in the region are calling for the cultivation of frafra potatoes or pessa. One of them is Madam Modesta Ayinloya, the Head of ISODEC, a Ghanaian NGO which advocates for women’s rights.

    Modesta: My full name is Modesta Ayinloya. I come from the Upper East region.

    Host: Have you heard of a crop called pessa or frafra potato?

    Modesta: Yes. In our locality it’s a delicacy, and very nutritious. You can either eat it by cooking it, then peeling it and adding some oil and pepper and salt, or you can eat it cooked without adding the pepper or salt – you just peel it and chew.

    Host: Do you have pessa in your house?

    Modesta: It’s a long time since I’ve had some pessa. Sometimes I see somebody carrying some and selling it. But it’s not a crop that is common.

    Host: Do you miss it?

    Modesta: Of course I miss it. It’s a delicacy. I wish I had it most of the time to take for my lunch. Some people take it with soup for dinner.

    Host: Pessa is getting lost. What do you think we can do to bring it back?

    Modesta: I would say that, if there are people who can organize the farmers, they should let them know that there are people who like pessa. Farmers may think that urban or “higher class” people do not like pessa because they think it is poor people’s food. But now we know there is a movement back towards local foods like pessa because they are nutritious, and they are good for a baby’s growth. Unless children learn how to grow it, they will lose their culture. They need to know that this food crop comes from their locality and it has a high nutritional value. So I would encourage agricultural officers to take this initiative, and I would also encourage our local farmers to grow it. And I would encourage the government to help farmers get a good market for it, so that they can grow it in larger quantities.

    Host: The re-introduction of frafra potatoes and other traditional crops can be helped by forming producer groups, especially women’s producer groups. These groups will empower the producers to market their crops in bulk, which will bring better prices and cut down on transportation and marketing costs for individual farmers. Producer groups should be linked to retailers and markets, and the crops promoted on the basis of their nutritional and medicinal benefits. Health shops and herbal medicine centres across the country could also be linked with the producer groups who supply the crop. The fulfillment of this dream would reduce food insecurity in northern Ghana and be good news for food sufficiency in every home.

    (Pause) Until next time, when I will choose another endangered crop to talk about, I thank you for your attention, and I thank all the guests for helping me to tell this story.


    Contributed by: Lydia Ajono, Simli Radio, Tamale, Ghana.
    Reviewed by: Patrick Maundu, Bioversity International, Nairobi, Kenya.

    Note: The scientific name for frafra potato is Solenostemon rotundifolius.
    Common names include:
    English: frafra potato, Hausa potato, Sudan potato, coleus potato
    French: pomme de terre de Madagascar, pomme de terre du Soudan

    Special thanks to the McCain Foundation for supporting this script on potatoes.

    Program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)