When the Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) entered into a ten-year deal to supply a foreign company with fresh sweetpotato roots for the export market, they immediately opened up opportunities for hundreds of people in the country to benefit from the sweetpotato value chain.
The critical requirement for sustainable profitability of any enterprise is an established market. So when TAHA decided to start trading in orange-fleshed sweetpotato, their immediate concern was to find a strategic market partner. In 2015, the organization established a market relationship with an Israeli company that produces and distributes horticultural products to European countries. TAHA signed a contract with the company to supply up to 200 tonnes of fresh sweetpotato roots per week to five different market destinations in the European Union – France, the UK, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
TAHA is a member-based organization that facilitates the development and inclusive growth of the horticultural industry in Tanzania. It works to ensure that the agricultural environment is conducive for farmers, through technical support, advocacy, access to markets and trade facilitation. For this commercial venture, the production model consists of a nuclear farm that is run by TAHA and 500 small scale farmers, who will be engaged as outgrowers.
The first phase of the venture was to test components of the value chain which were: provision of pathogen tested starter seed, seed multiplication sites, good agronomic practices, harvesting, curing, storage and packaging and logistics systems.
To start off, TAHA tested varieties that are in high demand. Two hectare trial plots were established in three regions: Arusha, Manyara and Kilimanjaro. At this point, a partner had to be found who could provide clean, disease free planting material of Jewel, Kabode and Mataya varieties that could be evaluated.
CBS: Supplier of clean, disease-free planting material
This is where Wilfred Mushobozi’s Crop Biosciences Solutions (CBS) Ltd. came in. The company, which was established in 2011, is located at Kisongo, near Arusha in Northern Tanzania. CBS receives disease-free sweetpotato tissue culture plantlets from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) Plant Quarantine and Biosafety Station (PQBS), for further in vitro multiplication. After acclimatization to normal growth condition, the plants are multiplied under insect proof screen house conditions. Cuttings are taken from these plants and then planted out in the trial sites selected by TAHA.
In Kimashuku, Hai district about 60 km along the Arusha-Moshi road, on the slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the small-scale farmers, Shaban Sho has dedicated one hectare (2.5 acres) of his farm to the trial, and has planted Kabode, Mataya and Jewel OFSP varieties. While he says that he is satisfied with the progress he has made, he would still like to understand more about how to control pests and diseases.
Crop management is another area in which the commercial partners are collaborating. While CBS supplies disease-free planting material, the agronomic officer of TAHA, Gilead Daniel, provides them with day-to-day support to improve their farming practices properly. Gilead is not alone in this. He receives technical support and clear guidelines on the accepted agronomic practices from the client. Among other things, these guidelines provide direction about plant spacing to manage root size, fertiliser use, and irrigation practices.
Amani Temu is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Commercial Director at TAHA. He says that at the end of the first season, the trial results were exciting. The yield was 37 tonnes, which was within the range of 35 and 40 tonnes per hectare that the client had stipulated as a pre-requisite for the deal. This is much higher than the 7-10 t/ ha which small holder farmers normally achieve.
Temu admits that while the high yield was a great first achievement, he realised that dealing with an entirely new value chain would not come without its share of challenges. A good example was the rather sticky affair of harvesting roots in the rainy season. It took sixty people ten days to harvest one hectare. “We couldn’t mechanise harvesting during the rainy season, because the tractors could not pass in the mud and machines do not work well in wet soil. Harvesting manually was tedious and the roots got bruised when they were pulled out. We had to wash 37 tonnes, root by root,” he recalls with a wry smile.
The curing process was another point in the value chain that was not straightforward. Curing is supposed to be undertaken at 30 degrees centigrade for five days. After that, the roots are stored under 12-14 degrees centigrade until they are freighted to Europe. However, the machines they used during the trial period did not work as expected. “There was a lot of fixing and modification to ensure that we could meet the standards. After curing, we sort, grade and pack the roots,” explains Temu.
At least there is one area where the TAHA will not have such a steep learning curve. For a long time, the organization has run TAHA Fresh Handling Ltd., a horticulture logistics solution that provides air freighting, trucking, clearing and forwarding, and ground handling services for perishable products. This company is expected to ensure reliable transportation of the cured sweetpotato roots to consumers.
According to Temu, the organization plans to aggressively seek market opportunities within the local processing industry to absorb roots that do not meet export standards. Buoyed by the first big harvest, he feels confident that the international market could also expand with time. “In five years’ time, when people go to supermarkets in the international market, we want them to see and consume our produce from Tanzania,” he says.
Mushobozi also knows that the commercial success of large-scale root production is critical. He says: “it will drive my sweetpotato seed enterprise. From TAHA’s program, you can see the whole value chain growing and suddenly, the demand for clean sweetpotato planting materials is higher”.