Ernest Baafi is a Research Scientist at the Crops Research Institute for Council of Scientific and Crop Research in Kumasi, Ghana. He is also a member of the Sweetpotato SpeedBreeders and Genomics Community of Practice. During the 14th Annual Meeting of this Community of Practice, which was held in Mukono, Uganda, from June 2-5, 2015, Baafi took some time to respond to questions by Christine Bukania about his efforts to breed a non-sweet sweetpotato that meets the taste preferences of consumers in Ghana.
What are you currently working on?
My current breeding work is focused on sweetpotato, which is also the crop that I worked on for my PhD. In fact, I recently successfully submitted my thesis to the University of Ghana’s West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement.
My research aims to develop varieties that will boost and increase sweetpotato utilization in Ghana, especially those that meet the taste and preference of Ghanaian consumers. I would like to see sweetpotato gain the staple food status that other roots and tubers like yam, cocoyam and cassava have. Families eat such staples at least twice daily.
Which type of sweetpotato do you have to breed to satisfy the consumers’ preferences?
The first trait the sweetpotatoes should have is a taste that is not sweet. The second is high dry matter content. People have also started appreciating the beta-carotene content in orange-fleshed varieties because of its health benefits as a vitamin A precursor.
The only constraint with orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties is that they are sweet and have low dry matter. If we can develop some that are non-sweet with high dry matter, they will be in high demand.
Have you made any significant breakthroughs in getting these desired traits?
Yes. In the selections I made from my crosses, I was able to identify about seven hybrids that are non-sweet and were giving fair yield. But the high beta-carotene materials have not yet given the desired high dry matter. More studies will have to be conducted.
Are these varieties already available to farmers?
These varieties cannot be released for commercial use yet. In Ghana, there is a minimum requirement that must be met. We have to collect data on the materials for a minimum of two years and submit it to the National Varietal Release Committee for approval. For now, we will carry out on-farm, multi-location trials, and assess the taste and preference with a variety of stakeholders. However, I am optimistic that we will receive the green light.
If people do not like the taste of sweetpotato, why don’t you promote other sources of food and nutrition?
In terms of food security, sweetpotato is the most cost-effective. You can harvest it as early as three months and latest, at four months. With other roots and tubers like cassava, the earliest you can harvest is after six to eight months. The yield per hectare for all these crops is comparable. Therefore, if farmers grow sweetpotato, they could harvest up to two to four times the amount of food they do now. But there are a few preconditions. The first is that they must have the sweetpotato that they want, and the second is that there must be sufficient water for the sweetpotatoes to grow well in the field.Another advantage, especially of orange-fleshed sweetpotato, is its beta-carotene content. It is a naturally biofortified crop. If a person eats sweetpotato, he/she will get vitamin A right from the source. For other root and tuber crops, one must first pay for the carbohydrates, and then buy food rich in vitamin A, such as the palm oil.
You are here to attend the SpeedBreeders and Genomics CoP annual meeting. Why is this meeting important
Science is about sharing and learning. What you’ve been able to do at your crossing block, laboratory and institute takes time to be published. But such meetings allow you to share your findings. It is also a forum where you meet people, provide details and clarify things that they wouldn’t find in a published article. There is also the opportunity to collaborate with other scientists.
How has CIP helped you personally, and the Ghana breeding program to achieve our shared objectives?
First of all, I sourced the germplasm for some breeding lines from CIP Ghana. Secondly, CIP has provided support in the form of resources. For example, the bench fee for the NIRS lab was waived when I was screening the base population and F1s for sugars content, beta-carotene content, dry matter content and other important micronutrients. CIP also gave me a vehicle whenever I had to carry out data collection and monitoring. CIP’s support is part of the reason why I am able to attend the annual meeting, share my findings and at the same time, update my knowledge on sweetpotato breeding. On 24 July 2015, my PhD degree was conferred on me. It is a result of a long period of work, in which I was supported by Ted Carey, the Regional Sweetpotato Breeder, who was one of my supervisors.