Sweet potatoes in Uganda

    | January 5, 2009

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    The International Year of the Potato has officially come to a close but, of course, potatoes and other tubers remain vitally-important crops for small-scale farmers around the world. This week’s script continues to shine a spotlight on the tuber, with a look at how sweet potatoes have changed the lives of farmers in eastern Uganda. The script features an interview with the head of a farmers’ group who explains how they choose which sweet potato varieties to grow and which sweet potato products to sell. Also included is an interview with a potato researcher who explains how farmer networks help to spread preferred varieties of sweet potato.


    Notes to broadcaster

    Eugene Ekinyu is a sweet potato farmer in the Soroti district of eastern Uganda. He is also chairman of a 300-member sweet potato farmers’ group. When he talks about sweet potato, he warms to the subject. Sweet potatoes have helped him send three of his children to university. They have helped other farmers in the group afford new beds, build new houses, open new businesses, and send their children to school. Mr. Ekinyu plans to build his family a new house. He has already picked out a name: The Sweet Potato House.

    The sweet potato, known scientifically as Ipomoea batatas, is a perennial vining plant. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, Uganda is the third largest grower of sweet potatoes in the world, and Ugandans consume an average of 85 kilograms of sweet potatoes per year, the third-highest level of any country in the world. Sweet potatoes are processed into many kinds of foods in Uganda, including amukeke, sun-dried slices of sweet potato, sweet potato crisps, and sweet potato porridge.

    So, sweet potato is spreading wealth among these farmers. Can radio play a role in helping farmers escape poverty and grow crops which bring great benefits? The answer is yes. It can tell the story of local farmers who realize a market need and grow crops to meet that need. It can talk about farmers’ groups who work together to add value to their crops, bringing themselves greater food security and income. It can give a farmer a platform to tell her own success story, using a radio diary format. Radio can present mini-dramas that show how smart farmers and farmers’ associations grow and process crops that anticipate growing market demand.

    The following script is an interview with Eugene Ekinyu and Dr. Robert Mwanga, a Ugandan sweet potato researcher. The script is based on two actual interviews, conducted by phone with the two men. Here are three of the many ways in which broadcasters could use the material in this script:

    First, a station could use voice actors to represent the farmer and the researcher, and change the wording in the script to make it suitable for local conditions. If you use this approach, it’s very important to tell your audience that the voices are those of actors, not the original interviewees, and that the program has been adapted for the local audience, but is based on actual interviews.

    Second, you could use the interviews as a basis and an inspiration for creating your own program on sweet potato research, production and farmers’ groups in your own area. Or you could do the same with another beneficial food.

    Third, you could simply pick and choose whatever information you find particularly interesting in the script, and, using your own research, expand on it in order to develop a program which is relevant to your own audience.

    Remember also that, however you use this script, and whatever program you produce, you can follow it up with recorded community dialogues or debates on the subject of your program. And don’t forget panel discussions, phone-in shows, and interviews with officials.


    Interviewer: I am speaking today with Mr. Eugene Ekinyu, chairman of the Soroti Sweet Potato Producers and Processors Association. Good morning, Mr. Ekinyu. Please tell me about how the group started.

    Eugene Ekinyu: Good morning. Our farmers’ group began in 2003, when we took a six-month training course on sweet potato at a farmers’ field school. In 2004, after the training, we decided that it was necessary to continue after the field school project closed. So we formed an association of ten farmers’ groups, totaling around 300 members. About 60% of the members are women.

    Interviewer: Is this because sweet potato is normally a woman’s crop in the Soroti area?

    Eugene Ekinyu:
    Not really. There is shared labour. The man usually does the opening of the land with a hand hoe. The women do the planting, weeding and harvesting. Also, the women do the slicing and processing of the sweet potato. The Association has five working committees – one for production, one for publicity and training, one for value addition, one for savings and credit, and one for marketing and sales.

    Interviewer: What challenges does the group face?

    Eugene Ekinyu: At the beginning, the main challenge was finding planting materials. In Soroti, the traditional method of growing sweet potato is to wait for volunteers to sprout. These are sweet potato roots which remain in the field from the previous season’s crop. And we cut vines for planting when the rains come. So in most cases, we start around June to July. But if you want to get better results from sweet potatoes, you need to start earlier, around March or April, at the onset of the rains.

    Interviewer: How did you meet this challenge?

    Eugene Ekinyu: We have been collaborating with Dr. Robert Mwanga at the National Crops Resources Research Institute. The Institute develops varieties, and brings us small quantities of the sweet potato vines of the new varieties, which we plant and multiply. Then we test them on the farm. We evaluate their field performance, and then their performance at the table.

    Are there any varieties that are outstanding?

    Eugene Ekinyu: We have evaluated four varieties: Kakamega, Ejumula, Vita, and Kabode. These are all orange-fleshed. Kakamega and Ejumula have higher dry matter content than Vita or Kabode. If you want to process a sweet potato into chips, you need a variety with high dry matter content. If you want one kilo of dried chips, you need to dry three kilos of fresh roots. With Vita and Kabode, you need to dry about five or six kilos to get one kilo of chips. But we have developed other products which need lower dry matter content – sweet potato juice, sweet potato jam, sweet potato crisps, and sweet potato soup. We use Kabode and Vita for these products.

    Interviewer: How do you determine which products will do well in the market?

    Eugene Ekinyu:
    We develop a product, give it to consumers to test, receive their comments, make the improvements, and take it back to them. Using this method, it takes about two years to come up with an acceptable product. Right now, the most popular product is sweet potato porridge. We call it porridge special.

    Interviewer: Are the farmers benefiting from growing and processing sweet potato?

    Eugene Ekinyu: Yes, income from sweet potatoes has enabled one farmer to purchase a mattress instead of sleeping on the earth. Others have bought goats or cattle. Some have built houses, others are opening shops, and still others are going into business, or they can afford good schools for their children. Myself, with the money that I am making, I plan to build a permanent structure, a house. I will call it the Sweet Potato House.

    Interviewer: Thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Ekinyu. (Pause) Now I will speak with Dr. Robert Mwanga, who is the Head of Sweetpotato Research at the National Agricultural Research Organisation in Uganda. Dr. Mwanga, I understand that you have developed some new varieties of sweet potato. Could you tell me why these varieties were developed, how they’ve spread, and how well they have performed?

    Robert Mwanga: We breed new varieties of sweet potato based on what farmers need, and what they face as problems. These problems could be food security, nutrition, pests or soil fertility. Recently, our target was to develop sweet potato varieties for food security – to increase yields, compared to the varieties farmers usually grow, and to increase nutrition, basically the vitamin A content, because what the farmers grow does not have much vitamin A. The other problem is diseases – viruses, and a disease called alternaria blight. So the varieties that we release have, in general, good resistance to viruses and alternaria. And the new varieties should yield at least as well as what the farmers grow. The other thing that farmers and consumers in East Africa generally want is sweet potatoes that are high in dry matter.

    Interviewer: How are the new varieties distributed amongst farmers?

    Robert Mwanga: For seed crops such as maize, beans, and sunflower, there are seed companies. So when a new variety of maize is developed, it is given to the seed companies to multiply and distribute through their agents in different parts of the country. But crops like sweet potatoes, cassava and bananas aren’t grown from seed – they are vegetatively-reproduced. For example, sweet potatoes are grown from vines. There are no seed companies for these crops. Instead, NGOs and other organizations that are interested in the new varieties get sweet potato vines from researchers, multiply them and then distribute them throughout the country. Farmers’ groups and individual farmers can also pick up sweet potato vines from the research institute and from what are called agricultural development centres, as well as from extension agents. So all these organizations and individual farmers help to multiply and distribute new sweet potato varieties.

    Have these new varieties then spread all over Uganda?

    Robert Mwanga: Some of the varieties are very popular – those that yield well and have good consumer acceptance. We have released 19 varieties, and perhaps three or four are more widespread.

    Interviewer: I understand that one of the most successful varieties is called NASPOT 1. How well has that variety performed?

    Robert Mwanga: NASPOT 1 has spread widely in the countries around Lake Victoria. It has even been taken to parts of West Africa. NASPOT 1 has a weakness, in that it is not resistant to alternaria. But it still gives good yield. It has helped farmers to combat food shortages because it is very high yielding. With good soil and ample rain, farmers can start harvesting this variety within two or two and a half months. Of course, there would be better yields at four to four and a half months of growth. But for farmers who face real food shortages, it is possible to harvest at two or two and a half months.

    Interviewer: Do you think that early maturing accounts for the popularity of NASPOT 1?

    Robert Mwanga: That is one of the reasons why it is widespread. The others are that it has high dry matter, it cooks easily, and the yields are high.

    Interviewer: Have farmer groups or individual farmers been networking to spread the new varieties?

    Robert Mwanga: Yes, farmer groups have exchanged it from farmer to farmer. For example, one might trade beans and get sweet potato vines in return. Sometimes, farmers sell the vines. For example, there is a farmer who goes from one house to the next through the villages. When he started off, he was walking. Then he earned enough money to buy a motorbike. And now he has several motorbikes! He sells small quantities of vines, maybe 50 vines, for less than a dollar, which is the amount that a household can afford to buy. Each household buys a few vines, and then they multiply them, and in this way they have spread these materials. When he sells these orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, he takes a message to the buyers. As he sells the vines, he passes along the message of how good the orange sweet potato is for combating vitamin A deficiency. When he started, he was doing it alone, but now he employs ten people.

    At this point, what are the major challenges to producing and distributing sweet potatoes in East Africa?

    Robert Mwanga: The major challenge is that there are no seed companies that deal in sweet potatoes or other vegetatively-propagated materials. We need to create a system in which some farmers specialize in growing planting material, so that all year round, farmers can get sweet potato vines. Then, whoever is interested in buying sweet potato planting materials could buy disease-free seed. The quality of planting material goes down after a few years, and then the yield goes down. After two or three growing cycles, farmers are forced to abandon their variety, because they think, “Oh, this variety no longer yields.” We need to take the same kind of approach that they do in developed countries, where some producers grow only for the seed market. This will keep the yields up, and any varieties that are released will be successful for more years because the farmers will be starting with clean, disease-free seed, and they will see that their yields are climbing.

    The other major challenge that sweet potato farmers face is limited or lack of markets leading to low prices or rotting of the crop when they fail to sell. Farmers need to be organized into groups to operate sweet potato farming as a business. They also need to start or to be linked to value addition or processing sweet potato enterprises that process sweet potato into different products on a commercial scale to help alleviate the market problem.

    Interviewer: Thank you, Dr. Mwanga. (Pause) Today we have heard all about sweet potato growing and processing in Uganda, and about some new varieties of sweet potato that are helping farmers and farmers groups earn extra income. Are you a sweet potato grower? Perhaps someone in your family grows sweet potato. If you are interested in what you have heard today, speak with extensionists in your area and with other sweet potato farmers. Maybe you can benefit by trying some of the strategies used by these farmers in eastern Uganda. Thanks for listening and goodbye for today.


    Contributed by: Vijay Cuddeford, managing editor, Farm Radio International.
    Reviewed by: Robert Mwanga, Head, Sweetpotato Research, National Agricultural Research Organisation, National Crops Resources Research Institute, Kampala, Uganda.

    Information sources

    Phone interview with Eugene Ekinyu, chairman, Soroti Sweet Potato Producers and Processors Association, November 16, 2008.
    Phone interview with Robert Mwanga, Head, Sweetpotato Research, National Agricultural Research Organisation, National Crops Resources Research Institute, Kampala, Uganda, November 3, 2008.

    mccain.JPGSpecial 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)