Innovating for change: Interview with Maria Andrade a sweetpotato champion

An accomplished sweetpotato breeder and tireless advocate for improving the nutrition and wellbeing of rural children and families, Maria Andrade is also RTB’s first female flagship leader. She recently set aside time from her busy research and project management work in Mozambique to discuss her passion for science, plant breeding, and the power of education and climate-change awareness to transform the livelihoods of farming families in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. And with the UN’s observance of this year’s International Day of Families and its focus on climate action, Dr. Andrade’s everyday commitment to achieving the SDG 13 targets could not be more relevant.   

Maria Isabel Andrade, RTB Flagship Project 2 Leader, Country Manager, and Senior Sweetpotato Breeder for SSA & Asia, International Potato Center

1. What inspired you to pursue a career as a plant breeder?

Even as a child I knew I’d go into agriculture. I was around five years old when I told my mother I was going to study coffee and live and work in Angola to change the lives of people who suffer from hunger in Africa. Moving to the US to study at the University of Arizona was an eye-opener for me. I realized that if I was going to help solve Africa’s food security problems I needed to learn how to grow crops and increase yields. During an advanced class in plant genetics at the university, I began to see myself becoming a plant breeder.

2. What is it about sweetpotato that first attracted you to work with the crop?

After finishing my master’s degree, I returned to Cape Verde in 1985 and started collecting germplasm of cassava, sweetpotato, potato, and yam. But after working with these four crops I saw that my passion was for sweetpotato. It’s a vegetatively propagated crop that is very easy to grow and tastes sweet especially the orange-fleshed (OFSP) varieties. Sweetpotato is also considered a “woman’s crop” as they are easy to grow and prepare. My interest was further reinforced once I found out that children in Africa suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and that OFSP could help alleviate it. I learned too that individuals will change their eating habits if they can see real benefits.

3. How have the traits we target in sweetpotato breeding changed (or not) over the years?

The first sweetpotato variety I released in Mozambique had very low dry matter content was susceptible to drought and pests, and did not appeal to male tastes; they often said sweetpotato was “watery.” Today because of the careful breeding program supported by SASHA, we are proud to have increased dry matter very considerably and also improveddrought tolerance. Over the years consumers adopted OFSP as a healthier product than white-fleshed ones, and it is increasingly being incorporated into the diets of children, women, and men. Now, thanks to the work of CIP and our partners, about 31% of all sweetpotato grown in Mozambique are OFSP types, and some varieties are very well adapted to Mozambique’s different growing conditions.

4. How do these traits relate to women’s needs, preferences, and/or interests?

Women often love what their children like to eat, as well as what is easy to grow and to prepare. OFSP “fit the bill”: Children love them because of their taste and orange color; women like them because they’re easy to grow and simple to prepare at home. Women can also sell fresh roots of OFSP and often process them to sell in the market.

5. In 2016, you were one of four recipients of the World Food Prize for your innovative work to help combat micronutrient deficiency and food insecurity with biofortified OFSP. What are some of the ways that women in sub-Saharan Africa have benefited from OFSP?

Over the last 15 to 20 years, crop research and the development of seed systems have helped increase sweetpotato yields, from about 5–6 t/ha in 2003 to almost 14 t/ha in 2016 (FAOSTAT 2016); 30% of all sweetpotato grown in Mozambique is biofortified OFSP. Yield increases like these would not be possible if we didn’t involve men and women from the communities in training and assessing the potential of these varieties in their fields. The promotion of OFSP among communities was quite intense. Because most of those women did not read or write, we relied on community theatre as a powerful tool to disseminate messages about OFSP and engaging members of the community in the different dissemination activities. The government of Mozambique recognizes the significant contribution OFSP can make to food security and nutrition and now includes the crop in the country’s agriculture investment plan. Likewise, in the nutrition sector, OFSP has been adopted as a mainstream technology for combating VAD. This initiative was promoted by the Technical Secretariat for Food Security and Nutrition in Mozambique and is part of Mozambique’s strategy in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement. None of these positive results would have been possible without involving communities, particularly women and extension agents in our efforts.

6. As the new leader of Flagship Project 2, what do you hope to achieve through the flagship?

I am excited to lead the CGIAR’s Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB) Flagship Project 2 (FP2), Adapted productive varieties and quality seed. Being a flagship leader is an excellent opportunity for me to provide scientific and management leadership in RTB and to support other colleagues in their success and contribution to the program. I would also like to spend much more time and effort on helping to align FP2’s activities and contributions with very recent developments in the global funding landscape of breeding. In specific terms, the Crops to End Hunger Initiative, the Excellence in Breeding Initiative, and the Gender in Breeding Initiative, who are rapidly changing the mindset about how plant breeding is carried out in CG centers worldwide.

7. What are some of the gender-related challenges that the flagship is addressing?

One of the methods FP2 applies is participatory varietal selection (PVS), which draws on gender-differentiated assessments of varietal preferences to develop varieties with user-preferred traits. One of the strengths of PVS is that having both women and men assess varieties for preferred traits will make it easier for those selected varieties to be adopted. FP2 is committed to understanding gender aspects and incorporating them when it develops product profiles.

8. Women are deeply involved in the production, processing, and marketing of RTB crops. How is FP2 working to provide benefits for both women and men?

Although FP2 involves both men and women in production and processing, it is largely women who are involved in postharvest processing. FP2 supports the development of varieties with higher processing quality to enable producers to link with a wide range of processors, from industrial to small scale, which can create additional employment opportunities not only for women and men but also for youth groups, who in many communities are saddled with low-wage work or unemployment.