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Can Potatoes Help to Counter Climate-Fueled Hunger in Africa?

By Madalitso Wills Kateta

Eddy Ouko, a potato farmer from Jimo location in western Kenya, understands how climate change affects global food systems. The 49-year-old father of four, who has been growing potatoes on his three-acre piece of land for the past 15 years, says amid the changing climate patterns, potatoes have been an important source of nutrition.

Ouko, who grows orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, told Devex that this variety of potatoes is, apart from being drought-tolerant and early-maturing, very rich in vitamin A, and offers his family insurance when staple cereals such as maize and sorghum fail.

“With potato farming, we are less worried about drought, all we worry about sometimes is scarcity of the vines for planting,” he said.

Potatoes are one of the world’s most important food crops consumed by billions of people across the globe. They are becoming “an advantage crop” in the global food security system, according to Food Agriculture Organization Director-General Qu Dongyu.

Qu told the World Potato Congress in Dublin last year, that potato production is set to double in the next 10 years with Asia and Africa becoming the fastest-growing production regions of the crop.

“By focusing on improving yields and making full use of historic potato cultivation areas, worldwide production can be raised to 500 million tonnes in 2025 and 750 million tonnes in 2030,” he said.

Do Christophe Ouattara, West Africa regional director for World Neighbors — a nonprofit that trains farmers in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Uganda, and Tanzania to plant and grow potatoes — said as climate change fuels food insecurity, farmers need to switch to climate-resilient crops such as potatoes.

Potatoes are a cool-climate crop, but breeders have managed to develop heat- and drought-tolerant varieties that are also disease-resistant, early-maturing, and can be harvested when the rainy season ends early.

Makonge Righa, Africa region program officer at World Neighbors, said sweet potatoes have traditionally been grown in many parts of Africa and are adaptable to different agroecological zones. They also offer a good opportunity for climate change adaptation, offering good cover to the soil thereby preventing soil erosion and weed growth.

“Sweet potatoes require little inputs in terms of chemicals and fertilizers, they are drought tolerant and rich in minerals like vitamins A and fiber,” Righa said.

Since 2006 the International Potato Center, or CIP, a CGIAR research center, has been promoting potato farming and working to improve varieties. Obed Mwenye, a plant pathologist and agronomist at CIP Malawi said the organization, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, is introducing new high-yielding varieties which are resistant to diseases such as the late blight disease and common potato viruses.

He said CIP is working with existing government agriculture extension structures, to reach farmers with potato varieties they can take to the market.

“There is a shift in the way our programs are planned. Our programs are now taking more of a commercialization drive to ensure that farmers are encouraged to produce what they can sell rather than selling what they are producing for food,” he wrote in an email.

Leonard Mideyo, a 58-year-old farmer from Dedza district in central Malawi who has benefited from CIP programming, said the new varieties are high yielding and he has been able to harvest enough to feed his family and sell.

“I grow Irish potatoes five times a year on a one-acre farm and I can sometimes make up to 2 million Kwacha ($2,000) in Irish potato sales,” he said.


This article originally appeared on Devex on April 26, 2023.