When Mathias Sserunkuma Salongo heard that sweetpotato breeders were holding a meeting with local livestock farmers at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge, he dropped what he was doing and rushed to join them.
Mathias owns a three- acre piece of land located near NaCCRI, just about an hour’s drive from Uganda’s capital Kampala. Like many small scale farmers in the area, he practices mixed farming. He keeps 10 goats, 25 free-range chicken and 3 cows in a zero-grazing unit. He also grows sweetpotatoes, bananas, cassava, yams, and beans.
“I was keen to attend today’s meeting because as farmers, we rarely interact with the researchers and extension workers to tell them what we want,” he said.
Livestock keepers discuss the traits they would prefer in forage sweetpotato varieties
It was his lucky day. The Sweetpotato SpeedBreeders and Genomics Community of Practice was holding their 14th annual meeting in Mukono, and were in NaCCRI to participate in a demonstration on how to test end-users’ acceptance and preference of different sweetpotato varieties. The end-users were divided into different focus groups: children, women, urban and rural farmers and livestock keepers. Mathias was part of the livestock keepers’ focus group, which had nine other participants.
Mathias grows sweetpotato primarily for food. He feeds his cows on elephant grass and supplements their diet with sweetpotato vines and peelings as well as maize bran. He praised the ability of sweetpotatoes to withstand dry weather. “Earlier this year, during the dry spell, we had no problem finding feed for our cattle because our sweetpotatoes did not get affected,” he said.
Mathias observed that whenever his cows feed on sweetpotato vines, they produce more milk. “I have never found out why. I don’t feed them on the vines daily, but whenever I do, they eat a lot, maybe they find them more palatable,” he suggests.
When preparing sweetpotato as cattle feed, the farmers harvest and store vines for approximately three days to reduce moisture content. They emphasised that reducing moisture prevented cattle from getting bloating problems. They also noted that from their experience, animals would not feed on sweetpotato vines continuously. Mathias has observed this problem especially during normal weather conditions. He suspects that it has something to do with the sap. “In normal weather conditions, my cows refuse the vines after two days, but during the dry season, they ate vines continuously. Maybe the vines had less sap because they had already started drying in the field when I collected them,” he narrated.
Benjamin Kivuva is a Senior Research Officer at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organization (KALRO) in Machakos, Kenya. He is also a member of the SpeedBreeders and Genomics Community of Practice. As the facilitator of the focus group discussion with livestock keepers, he got an opportunity to explain the advantages of using sweetpotato vines; for example, that they offer more protein and dry matter per unit area and require less land than other commonly used livestock feeds.
In response to the observations by Mathias, Benjamin said, “Even human beings get tired of eating the same thing every day.” He took some time after the meeting to explain to them how they can diversify their livestock feeds.
However, he did not discount Mathias observation that excessive vine sap could be a problem; “Green sweetpotato vines contain high amounts of protein which its breakdown during digestion releases gases which may result to bloating problem. This problem may be solved by mixing the sweetpotato forage feed with other feed types such as grasses or maize stover rather than just feeding the vines alone. Also, the sweetpotato vines may have anti-nutritive factors such as lignin and amylo-pectin which are not easily digestible and in most cases makes the animal dislike the feed especially if continuously fed with. Moreover, these ant-nutritive factors reduce with the drying of the sweetpotato vine forages. If a breeder is developing a variety that should also be acceptable as a cattle feed, she or he will have to select against the anti-nutritive factors,” he explains.
Why the end-user matters
The interaction between farmers and breeders is vital in ensuring that improved sweetpotato varieties are adopted. Adoption depends on the preference of the variety and its traits, the characteristics and behavior patterns of the end-user as well as the socio-economic environment.
Mathias, whose farm must sustain the livelihoods of a family of six, finds sweetpotato very convenient because it provides food for his family and fodder for his cows. He sources sweetpotato vines from the neighboring NaCCRI or from neighboring farmers. Once he discovers a variety that tastes good, has a high root yield and whose vines are also liked by his animals, he starts growing it, until he learns of the release of a better variety.
By adopting a consumer-centric approach that puts end-users like Mathias at the center, Benjamin says that he and other breeders are able to develop varieties that better meet the farmers’ requirements. “If we select and breed for the traits that farmers want, the level of acceptability of new varieties will be high. They will receive and adopt them, and sweetpotato production will improve and increase,” he says.