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Sweetening Lives with Sweetpotato

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The project, titled Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA), will be implemented in eight Sub-Saharan African countries, and is supported by a five-year, $21 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the largest of a group of grants presented by Bill Gates at the World Food Prize Symposium on October 15, 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” Gates said. The SASHA program will help set the groundwork for reducing malnutrition, combating vitamin A deficiency, and improving incomes for 10 million African households within 10 years.

Sweetpotato is the third most important food crop in East Africa in terms of production and the fourth most important in Southern Africa. It can produce better yields in poor conditions with fewer inputs and less labor than other staples, making it particularly suitable for households threatened by migration, civil disorder, or diseases such as AIDS. Yet the potential of sweetpotato to address these challenges is largely untapped due to a lack of investment to improve yields, market potential, and its negative perception as a poor person’s food.

 “This project will improve the food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of at least 150,000 families directly, with an indirect impact on 1 million families in Sub-Saharan Africa in five years, and the creation of conditions to reach 10 million households in 10 years.” explains Dr. Pamela K. Anderson, Director General of the International Potato Center.

SASHA will also focus on empowering women farmers.  “Women are the nutritional guardians of the family and the primary producers of sweetpotato, but don’t typically reap the rewards from their labor,” says Dr. Anderson. “This project tackles this challenge directly by including an African gender specialist and integrating strategies to ensure women have a full voice in project interventions and gain equitably from them.”

Along with white sweetpotato varieties commonly grown in Sub-Saharan Africa, SASHA will promote the orange-fleshed varieties that are rich in pro-vitamin A. These varieties can significantly lessen Vitamin A deficiency that threatens an estimated 43 million Sub-Saharan children under age 5. Vitamin A deficiency contributes to high rates of blindness, disease, and premature death in children and pregnant women.

To meet consumer and producer preferences, the project also aims to develop a wide range of locally-adapted sweetpotato varieties through conventional breeding that are resistant to drought and disease. Because conventional breeding has not been successful at creating varieties resistant to weevils, which can wipe out 60 to 100 percent of sweetpotato crops during droughts, the project will use advances in biotechnology to develop weevil-resistant varieties.

SASHA  will address a major challenge for smallholder sweetpotato farmers, regarding access to disease-free planting material, in time for the planting season. The program will increase the availability of healthy vines for planting and will explore novel systems for disseminating planting material to more cost-effectively benefit poor producers, especially women and their families. A final component of the project involves establishing three regional support programs, based in leading national program research centers in Ghana, Uganda, and Mozambique, to promote sustainable local breeding skills and capacity.

“We will work with local scientists, partners, and stakeholders and in close collaboration with the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) to ensure that we strengthen the capacity to engage in sweetpotato breeding in Africa for Africa,” explains Dr. Jan Low, who will be leading the project from the Center’s Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya.  AGRA is currently funding doctoral training in conventional breeding within the region as well as providing financial support to sweetpotato breeders in several national programs.  CIP scientists will backstop this training effort and together with national breeders test new methods to accelerate the development and release of improved sweetpotato varieties.”

SASHA is part of a 10-year, multi-donor Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, which seeks to reduce child malnutrition and improve smallholder incomes and livelihoods through greater awareness, expanded market opportunities, and the diversified use of sweetpotato in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s potential for sweetening the lives of Africa’s poor is widely recognized.

“Uganda has seen how sweetpotato has helped provide food security during times of severe food shortage and when other crops succumb to disease.  We stand ready to share our experience with others.” says Dennis Kyetere, Director of the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda.