Author Archives: RTB

A “wicked” challenge – understanding root, tuber and banana seed systems and coordination breakdown: A multi-stakeholder framework

By Jorge Andrade-Piedra and Margaret McEwan of the International Potato Center (CIP), co-leaders of the RTB cross-cutting cluster on access to quality seed.

“Why are the seed systems for roots, tubers and bananas (RTBs) so complex?” As a social scientist, this is an exciting challenge – to understand the interactions between technologies and social conditions and how to improve the linkages and coordination among stakeholders so that different types of farmers can access quality seed of their preferred varieties when they want it. However, when I debate with my agronomist colleagues, they complain – “Margaret, you are making things too complicated – is there not a simple way to present this?”

In 2012, this question was tackled by a group of scientists of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). They work together in cluster CC2.1. which focuses on improving RTB planting material and access to new varieties, part of the program’s Flagship project 2 on Adapted productive varieties and quality seed

RTB crops are vegetatively propagated and have fundamental differences with crops grown using true seed: they are bulky, can easily carry pests and diseases, tend to remain true to varietal type for generations. They also have low multiplication ratios. These features, combined with multiple stakeholders working at different levels in the system – which are geographically and temporally separated – create a “wicked” challenge.

CIP’s partners meet at the Technical University of Cotopaxi in Salcedo to understand potato seed systems in the highlands of Ecuador. They are using the multi-stakeholder framework. March 2018. Credit: I Navarrete/CIP-WUR

The cluster’s answer was to develop a simple yet powerful tool that would allow practitioners and decision makers to analyze key seed system functions from the perspectives of all stakeholders; to identify how their roles mesh together; so that no key functions or players are ignored. This tool is the ‘multi-stakeholder framework for intervening in roots, tubers and bananas seed systems’ (also known as ‘the multi-stakeholder RTB seed framework’).  The framework follows the concepts of seed availability, access and quality first developed in the seed security framework by Remington et al. 2002 and the seed system security assessment (Sperling 2008; McGuire and Sperling 2016). The framework is presented as a table. The first column lists the stakeholders (e.g. seed users, seed producers, traders, regulators, researchers) of the seed system. The top row lists the functions of the seed system (availability, access and quality), subdivided into action-oriented categories. A detailed guide of the framework can be found here. This explains how to use this tool, with gender sensitive guiding questions, at different stages in a project or intervention cycle.

Hot off the press, is a paper in the Journal of Crop Improvement by Bentley and RTB colleagues. This highlights the use of the framework across 13 case studies of (banana, cassava, potato, sweetpotato and yam) seed interventions from Latin America and Africa. Jorge Andrade-Piedra co-author explains: “this cross-case review has revealed how frequently there is coordination breakdown in RTB crop seed systems. For example, between seed demand and seed supply; and around issues of seed quality when seed regulations are not adapted to local realities.”

After using the framework with different sweetpotato seed system stakeholders in southern Ethiopia, Mihiretu Cherinet, Research Associate at the International Potato Center, confirmed that the framework helped them to be more conscious of the need to assess all three dimensions of seed system functioning (availability, access and quality), before implementing activities: “Our interest is to understand how to leverage the strengths of the traditional sweetpotato vine multipliers who have close ties with traders. The results from using the framework showed that, while seed users had greater access to planting material from the traditional system, the quality of the seed from that system was unknown.” Cherinet and his colleagues are now following up with an in-depth study to assess the seed quality from the traditional system.

The use of the framework has led to a study to compare the quality of sweetpotato planting material from the traditional system (above) and from commercial sweetpotato vine multiplier’s (below), Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) Ethiopia. Credits: B Temesgen (above) and M McEwan (below) / CIP.

This framework is part of a set of tools developed by RTB to improve the understanding of existing seed systems on roots, tubers, and bananas, and improve the design, implementation and evaluation of new interventions. The “RTB Seed Toolbox” also includes tools for impact network analysis, seed degeneration models, means-end chains, and seed tracing. The Toolbox will be officially launched at the RTB annual meeting in Cali, Colombia in October 2018. A systematic application of these tools will help us unravel the “wicked” challenge of RTB crop seed systems, so that roots, tubers and bananas can contribute to improved food and nutrition security and income generation for resource poor households.

Learn more about the framework in the below webinar:

Bad news for Fusarium wilt: “Breeding Better Bananas” means business

Hi pests and diseases, it’s your nasty cousin Fusarium. I’ve got an update for you from banana fields and scientists’ labs in Arusha, Tanzania. Its rather mixed news, I am afraid, as the humans seem to be making some progress.

First, some good news. Coffee prices and profits are down so many farmers are interested to switch to bananas. That could mean a bigger area to attack. And once I can get into the soil in their fields, I can stay for at least sixty years. Isn’t it great?

Fortunately, most farmers still aren’t aware that I am spreading in their irrigation water and even on their pruning tools. And climate change seems to be giving me a helping hand, because farmers are irrigating more since it has been so dry. I’m on the move, and you don’t have to take my word for it. According to Akida Meya, of The Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST). “Since last year Fusarium wilt is making a breakthrough in higher lands on Mount Meru above 1,200 meters where it hadn’t gotten a foothold before.”

I’m really making progress in Arusha, where I’m knocking out the  Mchare banana variety, which humans in the East African highlands like for cooking with meat in stews and other dishes. One real sign of my success is that Mchare is getting scarcer and more expensive in local markets. Isn’t that a fabulous indicator of my progress?

Look at this photo below of a farmer’s field of Mchare that I just about wiped out; and I did it right under the scientists’ noses, near the Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI)! That farmer won’t harvest anything from those plants.

Mchare banana plants with dead leaves have been wiped out by Fusarium wilt near TaCRI

Mzee Mbora Ulotu, who works with the team at TaCRI, practices traditional and now disappearing coffee-banana intercrop on his own farm


It’s not all good news though. Some of the farmers have been tipped off by the scientists and extension people. Mzee Ramadhan Rashid Kimaro of Masama village is one of this dangerous group. He realized that I was attacking his Mchare bananas and changed tactics. Four years ago, with help from those pesky scientists at the Ministry of Agriculture Training Institute in Horti-Tengeru, he got new plants from tissue culture including Paz, Grand Naine and Williams (dessert bananas also used for cooking). Thanks to those new varieties, careful residue management, manure and managing sucker replacement to keep his banana plants nicely in rows, he is getting very good bunches and making money from bananas. All quite upsetting for me, although luckily more than 85% of farmers haven’t caught on. Fortunately, there isn’t any network of community level nurseries where farmers can get clean planting materials of resistant varieties, although a few have gone to Crop Biosciences in Arusha or Kilimorgano in Dar es Salaam. So far there aren’t any resistant varieties of Mchare, so I am going to continue to feast on those.

Scientists admire Mzee Ramadhan Rashid Kimaro’s big bunch of Paz bananas

Mzee Kimaro has good mat management and carefully uses crop residues and manure


There is a rather troublesome group of scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) working with NM-AIST that has me worried. They’ve got some great shared labs and a rather impressive group of scientists who have me in their sights. They are trying to nail me down with an excellent tissue culture, molecular and pathology facility which speeds up their access to plants for experiments and eventually new varieties.

Magdalena Kiurugo manages the tissue culture lab at NM-AIST

Fusarium cultured in petri dishes at NM-AIST

Worse yet, IITA and Bioversity International have teamed up in a new project called ‘Improvement of banana for smallholder farmers in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,’’ under the logo “Breeding Better Bananas – BBB,” which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots Tubers and Bananas, which is chasing down  us pests and diseases. BBB has brought in 21 NARITA hybrids which are good for cooking, although they are Matoke rather than Mchare types. Noel Madalla and his colleagues at Bioversity International have planted these out in Moshi at TaCRI in what they call a “mother trial”. With the aid of clever software on a tablet, they are collecting massive amounts of data about me and my cousin Sigatoka (a.k.a. black leaf streak), as well as plant growth and yields. I heard Madalla say that “Next year we are going to have farmers select from the mother trial those which taste and look the best to test in their own fields in ‘baby trials’.”

I am getting worried that this BBB group may find a resistant NARITA which farmers like and the women say is good for cooking. Then I’ll be in trouble!

Part of the Breeding Better Bananas team

Using a tablet with FieldTask app to enter plant bar code before data entry in the mother trial

Banana breeders have already made crosses of Mchare varieties with wild relatives with resistance to my disease: Fusarium wilt. Fortunately, it’s going to be a challenge for them to develop resistant varieties that farmers will grow, because the humans are very fussy and like great tasting bananas. That should take them a while, or so I hope, though scientists at IITA and Horti-Tengeru are trying to speed things up. They have a mapping population made by crossing a resistant wild banana relative with a susceptible one, so they have a large number of genetically different plants, some with resistance genes, to do detective work on. They put 50 g of millet seeds infected with me, Fusarium, in each pot with a banana plant to see if I can infect the plant. Then those crafty scientists are going to collect DNA from all these plants and send them off for genotyping to BTI, in the USA, to find which nasty genes stop me from infecting banana plants. Their goal is to identify markers for Fusarium wilt resistance which the breeders can use to stop me in my tracks. Mohamed Mpina of IITA predicts that “We should have the markers in a couple of years and that will really speed up our breeding, which takes so long because we have to get back to a seedless variety after making our crosses”.

Mohamed Mpina should have markers from this mapping population at Horti-Tengeru inoculated with Fusarium wilt

Hassan Mduma’s research is throwing light on how nematodes in these pots aggravate the effects of Fusarium wilt

As you might imagine, I’m getting a little nervous, but I haven’t given up. I’m hoping climate change will lend me a hand. Nevertheless, those guys at BBB have me worried. It should take them a few more years to give me serious trouble, though, so in the meanwhile, I’ll keep up my destruction. Will send another letter to the pests and diseases family next year.


Text and photos by Graham Thiele, Director, RTB

RTB scientists at the forefront of developing technologies to help farmers cope with climate change

Climate change is creating new challenges for smallholders that research for development organizations are striving to address. Photo N.Palmer/CIAT


As government representatives negotiate ways to strengthen the international response to global warming at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP23, in Bonn, Germany, scientists around the world are working on technologies to help farmers produce food and generate income in a warming world.

The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) is coordinating varied efforts to meet the challenges of climate change that include an initiative to assess the risks of crop pests and diseases under future climate scenarios, and help government institutions prepare for them: innovations to accelerate the breeding of resilient root, tuber and banana varieties; and deployment of climate-smart technologies such as the ‘Triple S’ seed system for sweetpotato, which will help farmers produce planting material as dry seasons become longer.

Root and tuber crops have the potential to play a more important role in food security, but more resilient varieties will be needed as climate change advances. Cassava, for example, is drought tolerant, but climate change is causing increasingly erratic rainfall, which affects the starch content of cassava roots, since sudden rain before harvest can result in new foliage growth and reduced starch content in roots. Cassava breeders at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are thus developing varieties with more stable starch yields under variable rainfall. 

As banana is sensitive to drought, scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are concentrating on breeding drought-tolerant varieties.  However, as IITA banana breeder Dr. Rony Swennen explains, bananas don’t wilt, so protocols to screen effectively for drought responses are being developed. 

Sweetpotato is also relatively drought tolerant, and because its storage roots develop underground, they often survive tropical storms, providing vital food after winds or flooding destroy other crops. Scientists at the International Potato Center (CIP) sweetpotato breeding program in Mozambique, led by Dr. Maria Andrade, have developed 15 drought-tolerant, pro-vitamin A, orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) varieties that were released in 2011 and an additional four varieties released in 2016. These varieties now account for one-third of the sweetpotato produced in Mozambique, and some of them are also being grown in Madagascar, Ivory Coast and Abu Dhabi, or are being used as parents for breeding programs in other countries.

CIP potato breeders have also developed varieties that tolerate drought, heat and soil salinity, some of which have been released in Africa, Asia and South America. These include the heat- and drought-tolerant variety Sarnav, which is being grown in three regions of Uzbekistan, and the salt- and heat-tolerant variety BARI Alu-72, which is being grown in coastal lowland areas of Bangladesh that suffer seawater intrusion. One variety developed and released in Peru under the name Tacna was later released in China under the name Jizhangshu 8, and by 2008, it was being grown on over 20,000 hectares there.

Potato and sweetpotato were included among the stress-tolerant crop varieties to counter climate change in a working paper entitled 10 best bet innovations for adaption in agriculture: A supplement to the UNFCCC National Adaption Plan Technical Guidelines. A project of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), that paper was written to support governments in the elaboration of their National Adaption Plans.

Dr. Jan Low, a Principal Scientist at CIP, contributed to that working paper and participated in two COP23 side events organized by CCAFS. She explains that in addition to breeding for tolerance to drought and other environmental stresses, CIP breeders are developing potato and sweetpotato varieties that mature early. Since 2009, 40 early-maturing sweetpotato varieties, which can be harvested within 90-120 days after planting, have been released in sub-Saharan Africa. Early maturity allows farmers to better avoid high stress environments and provides them with more flexibility to fit the crop into optimal growing seasons. Low adds that another top priority for CIP breeders is that potato and sweetpotato varieties have high levels of micronutrients.

Though cassava is a drought-tolerant crop, breeders are developing more resilient varieties to help farmers cope with climate change. Photo H.Homes/RTB


“The idea is to combine varieties that can perform well under stress, in drought conditions, and at the same time provide excellent nutrition, particularly vitamin A,” says Low. “We need to ensure the quality of the food as well as the ability to produce food under difficult conditions.”

In order to help root, tuber and banana breeding programs speed up the development of climate-smart varieties, RTB has made a significant investment in genomic research, which has included the DNA sequencing and field tests of thousands of plant accessions. Scientists at RTB centers and partner organizations are using the resulting data to identify genetic markers associated with specific crop traits – such as heat or drought tolerance – that can be used to accelerate the breeding process. Researchers at IITA, for example, are studying gene expression changes in response to drought in banana, in order to understand the genetic basis of drought tolerance. RTB genomic research is being complemented by field research to ensure that new varieties being developed have the traits that men, women and youth want.

CIP sweetpotato breeders have developed 15 drought-tolerant varieties that now account for one third of the sweetpotatoes grown in Mozambique. Photo M.Andrade/CIP


“Given the pressing nature of climate change, I think significantly increased investment in breeding will be required to meet the challenges,” observes Dr. Graham Thiele, Director of RTB. “There are indications that progress is possible and some encouraging examples in the RTB portfolio, but overall, tackling climate change needs a step change in longer term funding. We need to have targets for improving traits which take on board future climates. To achieve these targets, breeding programs need to become more focused and product and demand driven, if they are going to rise to the challenge. One important development is support and funding for the Excellence in Breeding Platform, with which RTB is actively partnering.”


Sweetpotato puree makes nutritious, inexpensive bread while creating a new market for farmers


By Michael Friedmann, RTB Science Officer

At the Organi Ltd factory, in Western Province, Kenya, a grinder was churning out ribbons of an orangey puree, which workers quickly wrapped and sealed in plastic bags under vacuum.  I was tempted to stick my finger in and grab some, as it looked quite tasty, but we were covered in protective clothing so as not to contaminate the product. No fingers allowed! 

I was visiting the factory with Tawanda Muzhingi and Penina Muoki, research scientists with the International Potato Center (CIP) who had taken the time to show me the value chain for orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) in Western Kenya.  A CIP-led project has been promoting the development of products made from OFSP to create and expand markets for sweetpotato root producers, and the vine growers who provide them with planting material. 

All this as part of an effort to combat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) a critical health problem in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) that can lead to blindness and stunting in young children.  Campaigns to encourage the production and consumption of OFSP by smallholder families have been shown to be an effective way to combat VAD.  However, people in Africa have traditionally eaten white or yellow-fleshed sweetpotatoes, which aren’t rich in Vitamin A, and they don’t readily shift to the more nutritious orange-fleshed types. 

By promoting products made from OFSP that can be consumed year-round, also in the cities, CIP can strengthen the campaign against VAD while providing more stable incomes for farmers, and the vine growers who provide them with planting material.  Many options have been tried, and the sweetpotato puree appears to be economical and versatile as an ingredient for many food products.  Indeed, it can replace between 20 and 45% of the wheat flour in baked products such as bread and biscuits.

OFSP roots are pureed and vacuum packed at the Organi Ltd factory. Photo C. Bukania/CIP-SSA

The Organi Ltd factory has a capacity to process 200 kilograms of roots per hour, and produce 1 ton of puree a day. The company buys about 20 tons of OFSP roots per month from local smallholder farmers, most of who are women, whereas a number of youths are employed at the factory for grading, washing, cleaning, peeling, cooking, and mashing OFSP roots into puree. The puree is vacuum packed in 3- to 5-kg bags and shipped to Tuskys, the largest supermarket chain in Kenya.  

Tuskys’ central bakery produces more than 3,000 loaves of OFSP bread per day, as well as buns and muffins, for sale at its 23 stores in the greater Nairobi area.  Consumer studies conducted in Tuskys supermarkets found that sweetpotato bread is well liked, and since the puree costs less than wheat flour, it is actually sold at a lower price. The bread is also a good source of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. Lab analysis conducted by CIP and the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub determined that two slices of the OFSP bread provide the equivalent of 10 percent of the daily vitamin A requirement for children.

“Orange fleshed sweetpotato puree is a versatile ingredient in culinary and food processing applications and will revolutionize the way to eat root and tuber crops in Africa,” says Muzhingi, a specialist in food science and nutrition-sensitive agriculture.


OFSP bread has become so popular that the Organi Ltd factory now bakes and sells loaves. Photo M. Friedmann/RTB

OFSP bread has become so popular that Organi Ltd set up some ovens in the puree factory and now bakes its own bread to sell locally. It smelled good, looked very nice, and when I gave a loaf a gentle squeeze, it felt just right!

According to Muzhingi, Organi Ltd purchases OFSP from smallholder farmers for almost double the price on the local markets, and since most of those suppliers are women, the income helps cover the day-to-day household needs of some very needy families. “The OFSP puree value chain is a win-win for everyone and we are looking forward to scaling out and scaling up in the region,” he says.

The puree factory needs a steady supply of OFSP roots, so CIP works to ensure that local farmers can produce enough. This requires an ample supply of virus-free OFSP vines for planting material, because sweetpotato viruses can significantly lower yield, especially when infected vines are replanted. Consequently, the project trains some farmers to become decentralized vine multipliers, and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services provides them with virus-free starter material derived from tissue culture plantlets that have been screened for viruses. Vine producers are essential for Organi Ltd to be able to scale up production, or for other puree producers to come on board, as demand for OFSP baked goods grows. 

I was thus happy to visit a vine multiplier named Teresa at her farm in Homa Bay County, near Kisumu, in Western Kenya, which is a major sweetpotato production area. She showed us the two small net tunnels that she grows planting material in, in order to protect the vines from the whiteflies that spread sweetpotato viruses.  Teresa and her husband became vine multipliers and learned to use the net tunnels thanks to CIP’s Scaling up Sweetpotato through Agriculture and Nutrition (SUSTAIN) project, and they produce planting material of the Kabode and Vitaa OFSP varieties, which were bred at NARO-Uganda in collaboration with CIP.

Teresa was a gracious host, and she explained the various challenges that she and other OFSP vine multipliers face. She mentioned that many farmers still prefer the white and yellow local varieties, which are freely exchanged among farmers, unlike the OFSP vines that farmers have to purchase from vine multipliers. As part of efforts to promote the consumption of OFSP, CIP and partners work with rural health clinics to educate pregnant women and mothers about the value of eating OFSP and feeding it to their children, while linking them to vine multipliers such as Teresa, who can supply them with virus-free planting materials.

Teresa and other vine multipliers grow OFSP planting material in net tunnels. Photo M. Friedmann/RTB

“I have to encourage the farmers I meet at the health facilities to plant OFSP,” Teresa explains. “Other farmers come to my farm and ask me why I plant OFSP and where they can find a market for it. I am happy to introduce them to people at Organi Ltd.” 

As demand for OFSP baked goods grows, more farmers should start growing those varieties, which will increase demand for virus-free planting material. And the more farmers that grow OFSP in a community, the greater that likelihood that the children and women of child-bearing ages who benefit most from that nutritious crop will eat it regularly.  

By educating people about the benefits of eating OFSP while building demand for the crop in both urban and rural areas, CIP aims to reduce the incidence of VAD and improve farmer incomes.

Six steps to speed up climate-smart breeding in roots, tubers and bananas

Research centers and their partners have made good progress toward harnessing the potential of roots, tubers and bananas to improve food security, nutrition and smallholder incomes, but scientists are concerned that impacts of climate change could undercut many of those gains in the coming years.

Photo: N.Palmer/CIAT

In response to this threat, a team of scientists working with the CGIAR Research Program on Roots Tubers and Bananas (RTB) collaborated on a paper that underscores the urgency of building greater climate resilience into crops as global weather and climate patterns shift in a warming world. Published in Open Agriculture, the paper, entitled ‘Roots, Tubers and Bananas: Planning for Climate Resilience, outlines six steps needed to enhance the planning, breeding, dissemination and management of climate-smart varieties.

Over the last decade, “the urgency has really increased,” notes Dr. Graham Thiele, Director of RTB and lead author of the paper. “It’s being driven by the growing awareness of the reality of climate change, as well as a growing body of evidence about its potential impacts on agriculture, especially in some of the most vulnerable environments in Africa. Resilience is becoming much more center stage in our research planning.”

Thiele adds that while a gap remains between the sheer scope of the problem and investments into research needed to address it, there are many positive developments, such as more targeted climate-change models that will help researchers plan more effectively for a changing climate in the years ahead. 

RTB is actively collaborating in this area with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security  (CCAFS). Dr Philip Thornton of CCAFS noted: “Decision support tools are going to play a vital role helping to set priorities and targeting research and scaling of climate smart options.” 

“Crops are sensitive to changes in temperature and erratic rainfall patterns, so we need more locally detailed models to be able to understand the overall impacts of climate change and the adaptations needed [to respond to them],” observes Dr. Michael Friedmann, science officer at RTB.  He notes that RTB supports research in East Africa that combines data from farm surveys, weather stations and laboratory experiments to create risk maps and models to predict the threats posed by specific crop pests and diseases under future climate scenarios.

Predictions of potato late blight severity in sub-Saharan Africa using a metamodel                                         Left: current late blight severity; Right: late blight severity predicted by 2050 (source: Sparks et al. 2014)

“Most studies looking into the effects of climate change on food security have only focused on crop yields and may be under-estimating the magnitude of the link between climate change and food security,” said Dr. Dorcus Gemenet, molecular breeder and abiotic stress geneticist with the International Potato Center’s (CIP) Genomics and Crop Improvement group.

She explains that while drought and heat stress are the main threats to crop yield under climate change, crop breeders also need to address related factors such as irregular rainfall and increased pressure from pests and diseases as they work to develop climate-smart varieties. She adds that while improving yield is the top priority for breeders, they also need to understand how climate change may affect crop quality or shelf life, which is an especially important issue for roots, tubers and bananas.

Gemenet is working with scientists at North Carolina State University and other partners to identify DNA markers in sweetpotato that breeders can use to speed up the development of improved varieties. Over the past decade, CIP has worked with sweetpotato breeders in Africa to accelerate the breeding process, cutting the time it takes to cross, select, field test, and release a new variety from eight years to four. Gemenet and colleagues hope that the genomic tools they are currently developing will significantly further reduce in the time it takes to develop new sweetpotato varieties.

Changes in establishment and potential distribution (ERI) and abundance (GI) of the sweet potato weevil, Cylas puncticollis, according to model predictions from 2000 and to 2050. An ERI>0.95 is associated with potential permanent establishment of the pest (source: Okonya et al. 2016).

“If the breeding process cannot be made more rapid, then we won’t be able to develop the varieties that farmers need to adapt to climate change,” says Gemenet, adding that the challenge is both urgent and personal for her.

“Apart from being a scientist, I am the daughter of a peasant farmer in Kenya,” she says. “It is devastating to see a farmer who has lost his crops to drought.”

Gemenet explains that while accelerating the development of climate-smart varieties, breeders need to ensure that they have the traits that men and women want, so that they are widely adopted. RTB is prioritizing this goal though its coordination of the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative.

“There is already pressure to produce enough food now, and it is daunting to think about the future, but we need to prepare for the future,” she says.

Gemenet explains that as pressing as the challenges created by climate change are, she is encouraged by the pace of advances in technology and knowledge sharing that scientists can take advantage of. She adds that CIP and the other RTB centers have already accomplished a great deal toward making root, tuber and banana production more resilient, which she and her colleagues can build upon.

As Thiele observes: “Climate smart breeding means we need to keep doing what we are already doing. We just need to do it faster, better and smarter.”

By Amy Rogers Nazarov and David Dudenhoefer

Understanding gender norms to improve the effectiveness of interventions

By Anne Rietveld, Bioversity International scientist and RTB gender focal point

It was April 2014, and we’d reserved two vans to take RTB researchers to Mukono village, in Central Uganda, to test the methodology for GENNOVATE: which addresses how gender norms and agency influence men, women and youth to adopt agricultural innovations. However, due a mix up, the two vans delivered by the rental agency were too small to hold the entire group, so I had to borrow our office’s enormous, black, four-wheel drive vehicle.

After dropping off the researchers, I drove to the town’s marketplace to buy some bananas for snack time. Although we were just a few hours away from Kampala, the capital, I attracted quite a lot of attention as I maneuvered the vehicle through the narrow streets around the market, as bystanders pointed at me and shouted. One man came up to my window and said, apologetically: “They’ve never seen a woman drive a car, and such a big car, they just cannot believe it”.

I often remembered this incident as I read through the GENNOVATE data. When women discussed changes in their perceptions of what women are capable of, for instance, some mentioned that just seeing other women in non-traditional roles was eye opening. Although that didn’t usually mean that gender norms would change overnight, it did strengthen my belief that our presence in rural areas can influence perceptions on many fronts beyond the technologies we test or promote. It’s an encouraging thought for those who, like me, are interested in designing pathways to contribute to ‘gender transformation’ for more equality.

RTB researchers learned to use the GENNOVATE methodology in Mukono, Uganda in April 2014. Photo A. Rietveld/Bioversity International

A CGIAR-wide gender research initiative

The RTB researchers who were trained that day went on to conduct GENNOVATE case studies in Uganda, Malawi and Burundi in the months that followed. Each GENNOVATE case study refers to a single community in which a set of standardized qualitative tools is used to collect data from men and women. Other RTB researchers later completed case studies in Colombia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

GENNOVATE was conceived at a 2013 meeting of the CGIAR gender network, in Montpellier, France. One of the presenters, Patti Petesh, discussed her research for the 2012 World Bank report ‘On Norms and Agency’, which catalyzed a discussion on qualitative research as the key for understanding the role of gender norms – the social rules that prescribe men’s and women’s roles and behavior – and agency, which refers to one’s capacity to act, in agricultural innovation and technology adoption processes. Petesh was later hired to design the methodology guide for the seven qualitative research tools used for GENNOVATE.

Researchers from across the CGIAR have used that methodology to conduct a total of 137 case studies in 26 countries over the past few years. A series of different products has begun to emerge from that research, one of which is Gender in agricultural change: towards more inclusive innovation in farming communities. This report, which covers 24 GENNOVATE case studies conducted in ten countries, was written by researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) in collaboration with staff from the former CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics). The report was edited by Gordon Prain, the former head of the Social and Health Sciences Global Program at the International Potato Center (CIP).

According to Prain, RTB promoted both gender integration research and strategic gender research from the start, and has invested considerable resources in gender integration research, which focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration between gender scientists and biophysical scientists. But the GENNOVATE research, he says: “Delves into the underlying issues of normative constraints and power distribution between men and women.”

Prain explains that, while it may not have an immediate pay-off in terms of research outcomes, GENNOVATE is nonetheless important. “What is exciting about this research, and why it is important for RTB, is that it represents the ‘up-stream’ component of gender integration research, the understanding of social processes involving the relations between women and men, which will impact the uptake of research outputs. We need this understanding in order to more effectively integrate gender into technology innovation,” He says.

In addition to the new report and other products resulting from GENNOVATE, the initiative has provided very valuable experiences for the RTB social and gender scientists and other researchers who participated in it. GENNOVATE provided an opportunity to do in-depth social research across the CGIAR, with younger and more experienced researchers working together, and thereby created a platform for capacity building. For example, entire teams of field staff benefitted from training in qualitative data collection methods, whereas most of GENNOVATE’s principal investigators received training in the use of NVIVO, a software package for qualitative data-analysis. Thus GENNOVATE has not only marked the first CGIAR-wide, in-depth social study, it has equipped RTB researchers to produce better and more relevant research in the future.

Understanding social norms and their affect on women’s ability to act can help RTB and partners make their promotion of agricultural innovations more effective. Photo A. Rietveld/Bioversity International

Engaging youth in agriculture: A strategy for RTB

“In many developing countries, the labor market has left a high proportion of young people out of employment and unable to sustain their livelihoods,” explains Dr. Netsayi Mudege, leader of the ‘Gender equity and youth employment’ research cluster (CC5.3) of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

“Under such conditions, agriculture related youth programs and youth oriented research can provide an opportunity to build a critical mass of young women and men farmers with skills and capacity to take up opportunities in the agricultural sector and improve their livelihoods. However, agriculture has to be attractive to young people and offer a viable alternative livelihood,” she adds.

Young women at a cassava processing center at Onipepeye area, Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo: IITA

RTB has prioritized tackling these issues through a dedicated research cluster (CC5.3) which is housed under the program’s Flagship project 5 on ‘Improving livelihoods at scale’. The cluster team came together for a ‘youth reflections day and cluster kick off meeting’ from May 26 – 27 in Amsterdam, to develop a joint vision on strategy and research ideas that will guide their agenda in the coming years. A total of 14 participants attended from the International Potato Center, Bioversity International, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture as well as two participants from the World Agroforestry Centre and one participant from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center who were invited to share their perspectives and learn from the RTB work.

On the first day, Jim Sumberg, from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Brighton, accompanied and guided the team in its reflection and understanding of current issues on youth in agriculture, including existing theories and methodologies. “Young adults have multiple identities – daughter/son, students, farmer, laborer, migrant, spouse, parents – we need to avoid simplistic labels and illusions of linearity, as youth is a dynamic and not a homogenous category,” he said.

The team began by discussing the cluster’s approach to youth in agriculture, and the entry point for the youth strategy to be developed. Reflections about the myriad issues affecting youth, and understanding what has already been studied and done is crucial to define the gaps and formulate the new strategy and research agenda.

One participant summed up why it was important to focus on youth issues in RTB as follows: “A central problem is how young people currently engage in agriculture and how we can keep them engaged and help them build solid livelihoods strategies. We need to understand the needs of young people and men and women in a constantly changing rural environment.”

The rural landscape is being transformed through the introduction of technologies and ICTs; climate change is also affecting rural livelihoods and households have to change to be able to adapt. Young people are receiving more education which has also led to changes in their aspirations. A youth responsive agriculture research approach needs to incorporate and address these transformations if agriculture is to become a viable livelihood option for young people.

To define a vision and mission for RTB youth work, the team will conduct research to understand and define the drivers and opportunities for the involvement of young men and women in the rural economy. Young people are embedded in social relations that are also characterized by power hierarchies and these can shape their opportunities.

Currently the team has been engaged with the GENNOVATE, a global comparative research initiative which addresses the question of how gender norms and agency influence men, women and youth to adopt innovation in agriculture and natural resource management. Initial findings include that young people are not interested to stay in agriculture and parents aspire for their children to have occupations outside of agriculture as it is perceived to be a ‘dirty job’, involve hard manual labor and not a sustain livelihood. Young people often view agriculture as an option when other options have failed. The team will use some of the findings from such studies to help define the youth strategy for RTB and ensure that RTB researchers understand the opportunities and potential impact on the involvement of young people.

In line with this, cluster researchers will develop a framing paper for youth research and approaches in RTB. This framing paper will consist of a literature on youth, define broader conceptual frameworks and approaches as well as try to identify broad research questions for RTB to engage with. The paper will provide a critical building block for the development of an RTB youth strategy which will outline how to engage with youth (young men and women) in a meaningful way.

Blog contributed by Claudia Babini, Netsayi Mudege and Holly Holmes 

Improving livelihoods at scale

This is the first in a series of blogs showcasing the new Flagship Projects of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). By Amy Rogers Nazarov

As bulwarks against hunger, as economic engines, as health-giving foodstuffs – roots, tubers and bananas are fundamentally changing lives.

Improved Livelihoods at ScaleFlagship Project 5 (FP5), which works together with RTB’s other four flagships – seeks to weave together disparate threads of knowledge around everything from multicropping techniques adapted to climate change; research around which crops confer more powerful health benefits or display greater resilience; new storage technology that reduces losses via spoilage; post-harvest marketing tactics that are culturally sensitive and gender-equitable, and much more, according to Marc Schut, social scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University (WUR) and the Rwanda-based leader of FP5.

“Roots, tubers and bananas are important crops that enhance farmer livelihoods in different ways,” he notes. “How depends on the exact geographical location and the related challenges and opportunities for farmers, as well as their production objectives in terms of ensuring household food, income and nutrition security.”

Different crops may serve different ends within a given region. Consider Central Africa, where Schut pointed to cassava’s role as a key crop in terms of food security; Irish potato and banana positions as valuable income generators; and orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) as a critical tool in terms of bolstering household nutrition, particularly in young children. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, nearly one-third of the population suffers from Vitamin A deficiency – OFSP, rich in that nutrient and in beta-carotene, is a powerful foe with which to combat the problem.

Selling OFSP in Ndalu Market, Western Kenya. Photo credit: HKI

What’s more, “roots and tubers [of all types] are relatively tolerant to mid-season drought, which makes them an important crop in strengthening farmer resilience in dealing with climate change.”

FP5 seeks to disseminate the innovations uncovered in the other FPs across larger populations in regions where RTB crops grow. Program leadership will know FP5 has met its goals “if it has enabled other RTB Flagships and projects in moving forward towards having impact at scale,” Schut notes.

That goal “can be achieved through:

  • Providing decision support to make the ‘right’ research and development investments (CC5.1);
  • Understanding diversity among our clients in terms of their gender, age, social status and farming objectives and how to best respond to these differences (CC5.3);
  • Better insight into how interventions will create trade-offs and synergies across farmer and other stakeholder groups, farming objectives, and farm- community-, and policy level decisions (CC5.2); and,
  • Providing support to RTB in terms of developing scaling strategies so that our innovations can positively impact the lives of many more people (CC5.4).”

One key piece of scaling will involve working closely with local stakeholders – including governments, universities and other institutions – to capture and propagate knowledge, Schut observes. Another will be acknowledging that not only female and male farmers, but those of differing age and socio-economic status, differ in needs for technologies to overcome their farming challenges and preferences for communication, for example face-to-face or ICT based access to information.

Community leader, Mr. Sefu Pokwe Rwambo, inside the village meeting hall where community members meet to discuss and make decisions – including about farming related matters. Mkuranga district, Tanzania. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

“Technology uptake affects and is affected by gender relations,” Schut says. “For example, the introduction of a technology for early banana disease identification and control (a process usually managed by men) during the growing seasons of annual crops (one usually managed by women) created competition for labor between men and women in the household (Blomme et al. 2017). It is important to understand such dynamics when thinking about how innovations can benefit farm households.”

Regardless of what Flagship they are attached to, the scientists, farmers, researchers, policymakers and technicians “need to start thinking much more realistically and strategically” about how their efforts will bring about meaningful, long-lasting change.

“There exist many examples of how change occurs in society, and these are very complex and lengthy processes, in which science fulfills just one of many roles alongside governments, public and private sectors,” Schut concludes. “We need to be realistic of what science can and cannot do, and collaborate intensely with those other sectors that have the mandate and capacity to achieve impact at scale.”

The next blog in the series will explore Flagship Project 4 on ‘Nutritious food and added value’ 

Strategic Assessment of Banana Research Priorities – New trilingual website and call for stakeholder feedback

As part of a multi-crop priority assessment exercise coordinated by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), the impact of five different research investments for bananas and plantains has been estimated.

We are delighted to announce the launch of a trilingual website that provides a knowledge toolkit introducing the methods and results of the priority assessment.

Photo: C.Staver/Bioversity

Photo: C.Staver/Bioversity International

Furthermore, we invite stakeholders to take a survey to give feedback on the parameter estimates used to help improve the results to help allocate research funds in areas where they generate the most impact for smallholder farmers.

Research resources are scarce and making research portfolio decisions is complex and challenging. As part of a multi-crop priority assessment exercise coordinated by RTB, the impact of different research investments for bananas and plantains in terms of economic benefits, poverty reduction and number of beneficiaries has been estimated to provide a basis for the strategy prioritizing of RTB research areas.

To elicit the key constraints that small-scale banana producers face, a comprehensive global online survey with more than 500 respondents from 54 countries and an expert workshop with 34 banana scientists were conducted in 2013. The expected economic benefits and poverty reduction effects of the identified key research investments were then calculated using an Economic Surplus Model and subsequent Cost-Benefit Analysis. The results are very encouraging and show that research benefits can run into billions of dollars, up to 31 million people can benefit and more than 3 million people can be lifted out of poverty.


Photo: P.Lepoint/Bioversity International

To close the stakeholder consultation loop, we are now delighted to announce the launch of the website RTB Strategic Assessment of Banana Research Priorities ( that introduces the methods and results of the Strategic Assessment of Banana Research Priorities. The knowledge toolkit contains short explanatory texts and videos that guide the audience step-by-step through the different stages of the banana priority assessment.

Furthermore, we invite stakeholders to participate in a global online feedback survey. This will give the global banana community a chance to comment on the results and process of the RTB banana priority assessment and provide input to parameter estimates as well as process and methodology for any subsequent similar efforts.

The survey will only take 15-20 minutes to complete and will be available in English, Spanish and French on Monday, 6th February 2017. Individual email invitations to the survey will be sent to participants of the global banana expert survey conducted in 2013. In addition, an open link to access the survey will be provided on the site’s Survey page as well as the RTB, Bioversity International, and ProMusa websites and the websites of the regional banana networks.

Better businesses and lives through post-harvest innovation in roots, tubers and bananas in Uganda

Participants of the RTB-ENDURE end of project workshop who worked on cassava, potato, sweetpotato and banana crops. Photo: V. Atakos (CIP)

Participants of the RTB-ENDURE end of project workshop who worked on cassava, potato, sweetpotato and banana crops. Photo: V. Atakos (CIP)

Key stakeholders implementing an innovative project on expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses (RTB-ENDURE) came together for an end of project workshop to share their experiences and the main research findings. The project led by the International Potato Center comes under the umbrella of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). The dissemination meeting, held on 6 and 7 December, was held in Entebbe, Uganda. A side exhibition shared progress with novel post-harvest technologies and innovations trialed for the first time with users in Uganda.

“RTB-ENDURE project developed a number of post-harvest technologies across various crops. Let’s promote them at scale”, said Yona Baguma, Deputy Director General for Research at

National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), while officially opening the workshop.

The three-year project (2014-2016) was funded by the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and looked at four crops: potato, sweetpotato, banana and cassava.

“We looked into varieties for specific processing and post-harvest handling, agronomic practices, harvesting technologies, processing and handling approaches and practices, value addition and needs of consumers”, noted Diego Naziri, Project Leader RTB-ENDURE who works for CIP as a Post-Harvest Specialist.  “We endeavored to address the needs of an emerging middle class in Uganda demanding for higher value products, less perishability and more convenience”.

The project built on three main pillars: research to build the evidence base in terms of post-harvest management; value chain development and capacity building of researchers, students and value chain actors. It identified a number of bottlenecks in the available technologies in the postharvest management of the four project crops; coming up with possible solutions.

“The research teams developed businesses cases that looked at the technical feasibility and business case for each innovation. Each team worked with farmers and private sector operators from the beginning”, said Graham Thiele, Director of RTB.

Innovative approaches piloted


Picture 1: pig feed prepared out of sweetpotato vines and roots

Over two to three years, better technologies aimed at expanding use and post-harvest management of RTB crops have been identified that stakeholders, especially farmers, are confident work well for them.

For sweetpotato, farmers and rural youth in Masaka and Kamuli districts in Uganda are now making pig feed out of vines and roots. The silage is used to complement other animal feeds. “This technology fits well in the pig production system. Sweetpotato silage is available when feed is scarce and is affordable to the smallholders”, said Simon Heck, Sweetpotato Program Leader at CIP. The technology had not been trialed in Uganda, hence an opportunity with huge possibilities for generating employment and revenue.

For the potato crop, CIP partnered with NARO and farmers, to introduce new varieties and clones as well as rural stores that allow farmers to keep their potatoes several months after harvest and sell when prices are high.

Picture  2: A demonstration of a potato storage structure during the exhibition

Picture  2: A demonstration of a potato storage structure during the exhibition

“We sought to address loss along the potato value chain up to the point of marketing. We introduced new potato varieties from CIP as well as clones, seeking good value for processing”, said Dr. Arthur Wasukira, a researcher with NARO. “Through farmer organizations,

we hope farmers can have access to harvesting equipment such as the tractor drawn potato lifter to reduce loss during harvesting”, he concluded.

Cassava farmers on the other hand, are

Picture 3: Potato lifter that significantly reduces loss during harvesting

Picture 3: Potato lifter that significantly reduces loss during harvesting

embracing a new technology from south America, aimed at addressing the high perishability of the root crop.  John Balinda, a private sector actor working closely with these farmers said “we have reached a point where we can successfully wax cassava, test it up to 30 days and it is still good. This combined with better agronomic practices learnt as part of this project, such as pruning and ridging, ensures farmers extend the shelf life of cassava and sell at lucrative prices”.


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Picture  4: Cassava waxing was on display at the exhibition section

Innovations on the banana crop addressed various aspects of marketing. This included weighing and packaging of peeled bananas offering consumers more convenience while ensuring farmers received better returns.

Overall, the RTB-ENDURE project used the Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA), a value chain development methodology developed by CIP. PMCA requires involvement of a broad range of stakeholders. The project stakeholders included five CGIAR centers—CIP, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Bioversity International, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and CIRAD — five institutes of NARO, three universities in Uganda, several Non-Governmental Organizations, and private sector including traders, processors, exporters and farmer organizations.

“We have sowed seeds for productive work going forward by bringing together all these partners. We look forward to when these great ideas set into motion will mature into businesses and opportunities, adding more value to sweetpotato, potato, cassava and bananas while translating into better fortunes for farmers”, said Thiele.


By Vivian Atakos