In April 2015, 40 sweetpotato specialists travelled from all corners of Africa to Kigali, Rwanda to tackle the issues around farmers’ seed constraints.The two-day meeting was part of the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI) and brought together specialists from the Regional Technical Support Platform for East, West, Central and Southern Africa. The meeting was hosted by the Sweetpotato Seed Systems Community of Practice under the banner of SPHI. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) contributes to significant rates of blindness, disease and premature death in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Young children and pregnant or lactating women are particularly at risk of VAD. The Orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) is an important source of energy and beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body. In fact, one medium-size sweetpotato provides enough to meet the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for children and non-lactating women. Sweetpotato is a critical food security crop in many countries, where it supplements households’ diets when other staples fail. It has a short growing season and produces substantial yields even under unpredictable rainfall patterns. But the potential of this ‘wonder’ crop is yet to be adequately exploited. One of the most critical constraints facing sweetpotato production is a lack of sufficient and timely access to disease-free or ‘clean’ planting material.
Working with farmers to address seed systems challenges
In April 2014, more than 40 sweetpotato scientists and development practitioners, meeting in Entebbe, established the ‘community of practice’ to learn
and exchange experiences on how these challenges related to sweetpotato seed system research and development. Open to both individuals and organizations, the members learn through an internet based “virtual community” as well as through face-to-face meetings such as the one that was recently concluded in Kigali. Back in their home countries the members work together with farmers to address two key challenges. The first major challenge is how to ensure the survival of planting material in areas with extended dry periods; and second, how to avoid the build-up of pests and diseases as sweetpotato vines are re-cycled from one season to the next and leads to a reduction in root yields. For dry areas, a root based vine multiplication system is being tested and promoted in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. This is called Triple S (Sand, Storage and Sprouting). Normally, it is the task of women farmers to keep a small plot of sweetpotato irrigated through the dry season to ensure the survival of some vines for planting in the next season. Instead, with Triple S farmers can store small roots in sand during the dry season and then plant them out in small seed beds 6-8 weeks before the rains are expected. By watering the seed bed, the roots will sprout and provide cuttings to plant for root production. The second major challenge is in areas where sweetpotato can be produced all year round and where there is high disease pressure – in particular sweetpotato virus diseases. This can lead to up to 98% yield loss in some varieties.
Low cost tunnel technology ensuring access to clean planting material
A low cost net tunnel technology has been developed and promoted among vine multipliers who sell sweetpotato seed to farmers. The net tunnels protect initial ‘clean’ seed stock from the whiteflies and aphids which are responsible for spreading sweetpotato virus diseases. In Rwanda, this technology has been implemented successfully in Rulindo and Kamonyi Districts. Participants at the meeting visited these initiatives and held in-depth discussions about the procedures and commercial viability of these initiatives. The idea behind this exchange is to compare and adapt appropriate elements that ensure that seed systems are able to sustain long-term demand and supply of clean planting material.
Calling for increased collaboration between the public and private sectors
When the Director General Dr Jean Jacques Muhinda of the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) opened the Sweetpotato Seed Systems Community of Practice meeting in Kigali on 28 April 2015, he commended the efforts of his institution, other national sweetpotato programmes, NGOs, and the International Potato Center, for their work on developing a clean seed system for sweetpotato. He concluded with strong encouragement to colleagues in the Community of Practice: “I urge you to benefit from this annual consultation and I trust that you will take back ideas to your own country communities to test and put into practice for the benefit of sweetpotato farmers across sub-Saharan Africa.” This kind of encouragement, commitment and support from the public and private sectors will be critical in the development of effective sweetpotato seed systems. For members of the community of practice, collaboration not only helps to drive up demand, it also facilitates the implementation of effective delivery channels that will put ‘clean’ seed in the hands of farmers when they require it.