When you tell people you are working on a program called Roots, Tubers, and Bananas, the typical reaction is laughter, a look of confusion, or both.
But when you go to the market in a place like Kampala, Uganda, you get it. You see before you rows of green or yellow bananas, long yams with their white speckled interiors, smooth sweetpotatoes, sturdy looking cassava, and neatly arranged piles of potatoes. Sure, you also see some lovely colored beans and bright vegetables. But mostly, the market displays vast quantities or roots, tubers, and bananas – because these are key staples. They are the crops on which people rely for energy and nutrition. And they are the source for popular basic foods like the cassava-based gari, commonly eaten in West Africa, the banana-based matoke that you see in East Africa, or the fu fu (made from cassava or sweetpotato) eaten in Western and Central Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region that most depends on RTBs, where they make up nearly two-thirds of per-capita food production. They are particularly important in the diets and food systems of the poorest of the poor – those living in marginalized areas, with the least resources – for whom they are often the main source of calories (as much as 60%).
In the East African highlands, for example, bananas are a staple food for 20 million people, who consume as much as 1 kilo per person per day. The importance of cassava is such in West Africa that its name in the Ewe language (spoken in Ghana, Togo, and Benin) means “there is life.” Potato is increasingly a crop of choice in the highlands for its food and income-generating potential. Cassava, yams, and sweetpotatoes are important food security crops, because they can grow in poor soils, with little rain, and require few inputs. What’s more the leaves of cassava and sweetpotato are not only edible, but quite healthy (rich in protein and vitamins) – and they make good animal feed.
The market we visited in Kampala, Uganda was located in a low-income area of the city. The residents are primarily members of marginalized and ethnic minority groups, including many who have fled hunger and civil strife in South Sudan or other regions. Our market visit was only a snapshot. But, it was a rich and convincing portrait of the faces of RTB – and of the 200 million farmers and consumers who depend on RTB crops – whose lives we hope to improve with the RTB program.
by Valerie Gwinner