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Africa Business News of Tuesday, 3 March 2020


Rwandan scientists to release bio-fortified sweet potato variety

A sweet potato seller in Kimironko Market. A sweet potato seller in Kimironko Market.

Agricultural scientists at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) are working on sweet potato varieties with high yields potential and iron meant for pregnant mothers and children.

Countries from Southern and East African such as Rwanda, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania have obtained a grant of $15 million from the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation to support their respective breeding programmes for a period of three years under a project called ‘Sweet Gains”.

Jean Ndirigwe, one of the researchers said that bio-fortified sweet potato varieties will follow Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with Vitamin A.

“We take different sweet potato varieties and check their DNA so that we breed new varieties with iron vitamin. The varieties will also be able to resist sweet potato diseases, climate change and provide high yields,” he said.

Researchers say only 15 per cent of sweet potato farmers’ plant varieties have high yield potential.

Farmers are using planting materials that are infected with diseases and pests.

Poor varieties means the yields are very low and sometimes less than 50 per cent of the potential yields.

At least five new sweet potato varieties that were recently introduced are expected to increase yields from 11 tonnes per hectare to at least 15 tonnes in farmers’ fields and bio-fortified sweet potato varieties will be an addition, researchers say.

Ndirigwe said they are exchanging varieties grown in Rwanda and other countries such as Peru to study DNA of sweet potatoes varieties in order to come up with strong varieties.

The research said that farmers will get ready market considering the bio-fortified sweet potato varieties are very important for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers as well as children and other people because their nutritional value

“We want to speed the period of breeding. We are working on the technologies that can help get new breeds in the shortest time,” he said.

Rwanda has 158 sweet potato varieties in the Gene Bank and produced over 1.186 million tonnes of sweet potatoes in 2018.

Dr Campos Hugo, the Director of Research at the International Potato Centre (CIP) and SweetGAINS Project Manager said that the $15 million aims at modernizing breeding programs for sweet potatoes in African countries including Rwanda.

“Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with Vitamin A has been successful in Rwanda and we want more. In order to reach farmers in the field, high quality seeds that are affordable have to be developed,” he said.

The varieties, he said, must be able to cope with climate change.

“Because of the impact of climate change in Rwanda, we need more varieties resilient to climate change, tolerant to drought, tolerant to heat so that the impact of climate on productivity can be mitigated,” he said.

He said that breeders are developing a second generation of bio-fortified sweet potato containing iron to fight anaemia.

“We are working closely with Rwanda agricultural board on genetic improvement to get new varieties and transfer of technology,” he said.

The 2016 World Food Prize winner, Robert Mwanga is a sweet potato breeder who has bred Kabode and Vita, all orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties grown in Rwanda and said that partnership among breeders is needed.

“We have to make it for the breeders to breed quickly. After breeding, farmers must get vine cuttings on times,” he said.