Dr. Jan Low, World Food Prize laureate 2016is the Leader of Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative(SPHI) Africa. Her research focussed on the bio fortification of Orange-Fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP)which could help combat Vitamin A deficiency among the children and improve the household food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. She designed and implemented a series of integrated agriculture-nutrition studies that demonstrated the health impact of vitamin A, and spearheaded community-level marketing initiatives to sway opinion on how orange sweet potatoes could help. Excerpts from an interview with Dr. Jan Low.
Q. Could you please tell us about your work on the bio-fortified orange-fleshed sweet potato(OFSP)?
Sweet potato can be grown two-three times a year where there is steady rain or irrigation. The crop also has high yields and farmers can produce several crops a year. As a result, this helps address the problem of food shortage, especially in areas where cultivatable land is diminishing or where the population is increasing. In addition, sweet potato can also provide large quantities of quality food that is high in vitamin A.
However, it’s also worth noting that a sweet potato variety, which is popular in one country, may not be appropriate for another because of local preferences or that it is not adapted to the area. Apart from creating sweet potato varieties suited to local tastes, there is also a need to disseminate the crop to different countries. In recognition of these problems, the International Potato Centre (CIP) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) acquired funding to form the project Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa .We created new varieties, reduced the breeding cycle from eight years to four years and used a variety of methods to get the crop to different segments of the population. We also used different marketing strategies including radio announcements, songs, and plays to educate the communities and encourage people to accept and eat the orange-fleshed sweet potato.
We also used a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy where breeders in different regions created orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties that were suited to local market preferences and climate. The programme asked breeders in West Africa to create less sweet varieties while their counterparts in east and Central Africa concentrated on breeding for virus resistance. In addition, the breeders in southern Africa concentrated on breeding drought-resistant varieties. In Mozambique, our breeders produced 15 varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato, and, in east and central Africa, our colleagues increased yields from 4.5 to 10 tons per hectare. We also tackled the problem of vitamin A deficiency.
At that time, there is a conventional wisdom that Africans wouldn’t eat orange sweet potato. In Africa most traditional sweet potato varieties are white fleshed, with neither beta-carotene nor pro-vitamin A, or yellow flesh with very limited amounts. When we were doing taste tests in the field, I observed that people actually liked the orange colour a lot and we later realized that it wasn’t actually the colour that deterred people from eating these varieties, but rather the texture. We questioned this conventional wisdom through our research.
In England and USA,the people love sweet potato varieties with low dry-matter content. This makes them easy to mash and means that they taste great when roasted. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Uganda, people love high dry-matter varieties that are very mealy. Sweet potato is actually a bread substitute for breakfast so preferred varieties have a dry matter content of 30-32%.
As a result, we recognised that we needed to breed orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties with high dry matter content to win the support of the people. During that first project, we also learnt that the children prefer and love the low dry matter content.The bio-fortified OFSP varieties have emerged from a process of questioning conventional wisdom and theories. We learnt that, if there is a food product that can boost nutrition where it’s most needed, we should exploit it. We can make the most of the OFSP through conventional breeding.
Q. What are the key challenges you have faced while introducing this new variety to African community?
The challenges are enormous. I believe that agriculture has to be better integrated with other sectors. Furthermore, governments need to prioritise the development of hard infrastructure and create the conditions that allow greater private sector investment in agriculture. Another challenge is that an ageing population dominates the rural sectors in many African countries. Consequently, we need to engage young people to pursue agriculture and encourage them to stay in rural areas, as opposed to migrating to the cities. We face a number of issues concurrently, but they can be addressed through the right combination of policy and investment.
Q. How can the orange-fleshed sweet potato help enhance food security in Africa? What are the advantages that it holds over other traditional varieties?
The orange-fleshed sweet potato can really help enhance food security in Africa. First of all, sweet potato is such a flexible crop, as it can be grown in almost every agro-ecological condition. In addition, it has flexible planting and harvesting times. Sweet potato crops will provide adequate yields even if they are not planted at the optimum time. So the farmers can oftenprioritise more sensitive crops such as maize and plant sweet potato afterwards. It can also be stored very easily. Depending on the dry season, farmers can often store it in the ground.
We’ve also been breeding for early maturing sweet potato varieties that are ready in three-five months, rather than the six-eight month process for traditional varieties. This is really helpful in a changing and unpredictable climatic condition.
Sweet potato’s other great advantage is that all parts of the plant can be used. We can eat the roots as well as the leaves, which have very high protein content, and are loaded with lutein, which is important for eyesight. People can also give the vines and leaves for their livestock to eat. It really is a crop that can fit into most food systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sweet potato is a short duration crop which can produce high yields in a short time and it can be used in a huge range of products. It also has folic acid and anti- carcinogenic agents which prevent cancer. It contains energy, vitamins and minerals, which make it the ideal food security crop. It is also loaded with minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
The crop provides quality food, which can help combat malnutrition. It is actually a crop of the future for feeding the growing population.Using OFSP, we strive to get the crop re-branded as a healthy food for all
Q. As an agricultural solution how much it is possible in India?
Yes I think it is possible in India.As I early said the orange fleshed sweet potato is flexible, very rich in vitamin A and it produces a lot of energy and we can introduce it in various agri-colleges, develop multiple varieties, do good production and adopt methods to disseminate to the needy people.
Q. What are your future research projects?
There is always a constant need for new models and techniques, here also, because the new outbreaks of diseases and pests all affect food. By 2020, we expected to develop an orange-fleshed sweet potato variety that is also bio fortified in iron. In our conventional breeding in Mozambique, we have been selecting for increased iron and zinc content in every generation. By 2020, I think that we will be able to achieve this goal for iron, but not for zinc.
At the CIP (International Potato centre), our emphasis is on creating markets for farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, because any class of farmer can grow sweet potato. Accordingly, we’re very committed to help to develop value chains that help small farmers, not just the large farmers. That requires more work and more training, but we have found that small farmers can be even more productive in terms of pre-unit area use than larger farmers. What they need are the opportunities, business training and skills to work in associations so they can aggregate their product and reach these emerging markets.
Q. What advice would you give to young Indians who are hoping to pursue a career in agricultural research?
To young Indians who want to pursue a career in agricultural research, I would say the younger generation can help introduce new technologies and develop solutions to the challenges of the growing population. Go with your efforts and try to make apositive impact in society.
Q. Being a social scientist, agricultural economist and working with a social perspective how you look at the problems and developments in agriculture?
Success in agriculture is always based on ecologically adapted and economically viable technologies with a collective response from social, cultural, economic and political forces. So definitely we need a wide perspective to tackle the problems in agriculture.