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Small investment, Big results!

How village savings and loans groups, orange fleshed sweetpotato and the Triple-S innovation are empowering women in Northern Ghana.

Ernestine Gbang in her sweetpotato garden during the rainy season (May to September) Photo Credit: I/Suleman

‘For me, growing sweetpotato is much easier than other crops. I use few inputs and have little maintenance and I still get a good yield’ said Ernestine Gbang, a women’s group leader and successful sweetpotato farmer in Nyangor village, Lambuissie district of the Upper West Region, Ghana. This is a dry and hot area with an average annual rainfall of 1013 mm[1], most of which falls between May and September.

Ernestine started growing orange fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) in 2016 after she received 100 vines from a local NGO working with the Greater Rural Opportunities for Women project[2]. That season, she harvested a basin of about 50kgs of roots. She sold only a very small quantity from this produce because she wanted to use the roots for household consumption and storage for the next season.  Her family really liked OFSP because it was sweet and helped diversify their diet.

She stored her sweetpotato roots after the first harvest, together with the yams, in a mound in a shady part of her farm in December that year. When she removed the roots the following April, some of the roots were rotten, but the majority had sprouted. She planted the sprouted roots in a garden, in anticipation of the rainy season that starts in May or June. Fortunately for Ernestine the community borehole is close to her homestead making it easy to get the water needed to multiply vines for sufficient planting material. She multiplied enough material for 25 beds on her farm and to sell vine cuttings to four other women in her community.

‘I have benefited from continuous training from the field agents’, said Ernestine. ‘The year before last, they came to our group and trained us on how to use this new technique (Triple S)’ she continued. The Scaling Triple S project partners in Ghana, such as the MEDA GROW project and local NGOs have found working with women’s groups to be very effective in disseminating new agricultural technologies. The groups have between 10 – 30 women members and meet every week to save money in their Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA). This saved money can then be used by members to take loans to buy agricultural inputs or to pay for school fees among other needs. VSLA group meetings also provide good opportunities to train members on agricultural innovations. The MEDA GROW project has organized over 15,000 women in the Upper West Region in such VSLA groups, empowering them with access to credit, inputs and training on nutrition, hygiene, agriculture, processing and marketing of agricultural produce.

To market her vines, Ernestine decided to boil some OFSP roots and sell them door-to-door in the community as the majority of the community members were yet to taste and appreciate OFSP. This strategy worked because after tasting the boiled roots, her neighbours liked them and asked whether she could help them cultivate this crop. She educated them on the nutritious benefit of OFSP, especially it’s richness in Pro-Vitamin A, which helps fight malnutrition and boosts the immune system. When they asked where on their farms was suitable for cultivating sweetpotato, she explained that unlike yam which needs clay soil, sweetpotato needs sandy loamy soil which is prevalent in the area.

Triple S has helped Ernestine improve storage of roots using sand in a pit during the long dry season which help to produce timely and quality planting material. She regularly monitors them to remove rotten ones and de-sprout those that sprout too early. She stopped de-sprouting them in March and in April 2018, when she removed them from storage, as the majority of the roots were clean and had sprouted. She produced very good vines from the sprouts and sold nine bundles of 100 vine cuttings to a farmer from neighbouring Burkina Faso for 10 cedi (about 2 USD) per bundle. That planting season, she increased her farming area to 30 beds and harvested an impressive 200 kgs of roots (estimated yield of about 15 tons per hectare).

Secure storage area in the Gbang homestead (right) and a happy Ernestine finds that her roots are still in good condition 3 months into storage Photo credit/ R Kihiu

Facilitated screening of farmer-to-farmer training videos on OFSP, carried out when the women meet for VSLA activities has been very beneficial. From these trainings, she learnt how to use ridges instead of beds when planting her vines. She also learnt how to cook a wide variety of nutritious meals from both leaves and roots, for instance “mpotompoto” (a traditional one pot dish made using sweetpotato or yam, video here) that her family finds very delicious! 

‘Next year I will ask my husband to support me in planting half an acre of sweetpotato’ Ernestine said. Her husband, Fao-obe Gbang, is fully supportive of his wife’s activities of supplementing household food consumption and income through OFSP. During the rainy season, he helps her in transplanting cuttings from beds to the ridges and monitoring the sweetpotato plot to ensure that everything is alright.

‘Come back in July this year and you will see a difference in this place’ Ernestine optimistically concluded. ‘It will be beautifully green and not dry as you see it now, and I will make you a nice dish of sweetpotato leaves’.



Blog written and photos provided by Rosemary Kihiu, with contributions from Issahaq Suleman and Thomas van Mourik (CIP Ghana). 

Who sits at the table? Policy, people, and potatoes in Kenya

Photo: David Spielman/IFPRI

Although it might seem surprising, many Kenyan farmers, entrepreneurs, and investors are intensely interested in the preparation of new regulations on the production and marketing of planting materials for vegetatively propagated crops (VPCs), such as potato and sweetpotato. The new regulations may determine who can and cannot produce VPC planting material, how quickly yields and output might grow, and what varieties come to dominate the market in the coming years.

At present, seed potato and sweetpotato vines—the propagation materials that farmers use each season to plant a new crop—are produced, stored, and traded by farmers in a largely unregulated manner. Exchanges are mainly local because these planting materials do not travel well, and because only a few privately-owned farms and a handful of state-owned seed enterprises and development projects produce certified planting material. As a result, just 4-5 percent of seed potato planted in Kenya is certified, although this is now on the rise with significant investments by the private sector over the last couple of years. For sweetpotato, the proportion of certified seed is much less.

However, the Government of Kenya is anticipating that by regulating the production and trade in VPC planting material, farmers will gain access to better seed—materials free from pests and diseases that can damage the crop, and materials that contain traits that are appropriate to their farming system and to market demand. This is expected to lead to increased production, higher yields, and greater value for farmers, food processors, and other value chain actors. Access to seed produced under a better quality assurance system is particularly important in the case of potatoes, where bacterial wilt and potato cyst nematode can cause serious damage to the crop.

Following amendments to the country’s seed sector policy in 2016, the Government has assigned its regulator, the Kenya Plant Health inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), to the task. This may be the first instance in Sub-Saharan Africa of detailed regulations being introduced specifically for VPC planting materials. (While seed standards for VPCs are in place in many countries, seed regulations are general stipulations applied to all crops and are typically based on the characteristics of seed for grain crops, not VPCs.)

As it stands now—under a strict interpretation of the current seed law—selling seed which has not been certified seed is illegal. But the situation on the ground is quite different: the informal market and farmer-to-farmer exchanges of seed are likely to play an important role for many VPCs in Kenya for the foreseeable future.

David Spielman (IFPRI) and Daniel Mbiri (CIP-Nairobi) examining potatoes near Meru, Kenya.

Still, KEPHIS is charged with formulating the precise requirements to produce VPC planting material, including registration procedures and fees necessary for a farmer group, cooperative, or enterprise to become a seed producer, sampling procedures, crop-specific parameters and tolerance levels for pests and diseases, and the number and type of inspections needed to secure certification for a seed lot before it is sold on the market.

Will these regulations accelerate yield and output growth by encouraging large-scale investment in the sector? Or will they pose barriers to entry for those looking to invest in the VPC seed business? And will smallholder farmers—especially women smallholders who often play a central role in VPC crop management and seed production—have a voice in the process that ultimately leads to these new regulations?

These are the questions facing a team of researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as part of a study supported by the CGIAR research programs on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas(RTB) and on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), and by the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research.

Preliminary findings suggest that there is indeed intense discourse currently unfolding among stakeholders over the minutia of VPC regulation. A positive sign in all this is that KEPHIS is welcoming these discussions. And so are county governments, given that they are taking up ever-increasing responsibility for agricultural matters under Kenya’s recent devolution initiative.

Findings also suggest that stakeholders are coalescing around two key narratives which are simultaneously competing and overlapping. The first narrative “quality at any cost” ties potato (and other VPCs) to national food security objectives, arguing that increases in yield and output will only be realized within a regulatory framework that ensures the production of certified seed at scale, minimizes the risk of pests and disease, and protects the hard-earned credibility of the country’s regulator. While KEPHIS is an obvious proponent of this approach, it also has received a favorable hearing from European exporters and Kenyan investors looking to expand their presence in the country’s seed potato market.

The second narrative—“local quality assurance”—introduces the possibility of “clean” seed production models that build off the entrepreneurial spirit of smallholder farmers and farmers’ organizations and allows for more relaxed quality standards and informal trade. This approach seems to resonate with farmers, farmers’ organizations, and other grassroots associations already operating in this informal space. But it is also a potential vehicle for the widespread transmission of pests and disease.

These findings point to options that might not be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the need to recognize that while the VPC seed systems face similar challenges, there are also crop-specific characteristics, especially with respect to the risk of spread of pests and diseases. There may be ways to improve the availability of, and access, to quality VPC planting material through deliberated compromise to reach a more optimal trade-off between seed quality and broad access. Our research will continue to examine these issues throughout the coming year.

So, what’s next for Kenya? The continuing debate is a healthy sign, especially if it helps shape the regulations and standards for VPC planting materials, considers the risks associated with each crop, responds to the needs of different types of farmers, and takes account of the country’s ground realities.

Of course, bringing the different stakeholders to the table is not easy: both the stakeholder landscape and the interests of these stakeholders are dynamic. But Kenya’s constitution makes public participation mandatory to the policy process. That is a good sign. Or, as the Kenyan proverb states: “asiye kuwepo, na lake halipo” “if you are not there, your interest will not be taken.”

This work is undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). Implementation is led by CIP. Funding support is provided by the CGIAR Trust Fund contributors and the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research.

Margaret McEwan is a senior project manager at the International Potato Center (CIP) and a co-leader of the Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) cross-cutting cluster on access to quality seed. Netsayi Mudege is a gender research scientist at the International Potato Center (CIP). David Spielman is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of Technological Innovation and Sustainable Intensification flagship in Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).

Global study guides agriculture towards gender equality

Now more than ever, the agricultural research for development sector recognizes that women’s needs, preferences and realities need to be both understood and considered in the development and roll-out of new technologies and projects.

A “one size fits all” approach is not only ineffective, often leading to discarded technologies, but can also have unintended consequences that are damaging to families and communities.

“The myth that agricultural innovations are ‘gender neutral’ has been picked away over the years. Women themselves are farmers and not only housewives and agricultural laborers in their husbands’ shadow. They have different technological priorities and preferences,” explains Dr Gordon Prain, international consultant and former leader of the Social and Nutritional Sciences Division at the International Potato Center.

In 2013, an ambitious global project set out to better understand how ‘gender norms’ and ‘agency’ influence the adoption of agricultural innovations, with the aim of using the findings to guide agricultural researchers towards more gender-responsive and impactful work.

The term ‘agency’ refers to a person’s ability to define their own goals and act upon them, while ‘gender norms’ are the societal rules that govern men’s and women’s roles and everyday behavior and interactions. For example, in some countries, gender norms mean that women cannot own land or go to the market without their husband or a male companion. Norms vary across countries, regions and cultures, and can influence how farming is done and the roles that women and men play in agriculture.

The project, called GENNOVATE or ‘Enabling Gender Equality in Agricultural and Environmental Innovation’, was an unprecedented collaboration between 11 CGIAR Research Programs and nine research centers that carried out 137 case studies in 26 countries.

Gender researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), contributed to the study through in-depth group and one-on-one interviews with close to 1,600 women and men smallholder farmers cultivating RTB crops. The interviews were held across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America.  

Researchers set out to answer questions like, how do gender norms influence the types of agricultural innovations that women and men adopt? And how differently do men and women value physical, financial, and social assets for supporting agricultural innovation?

While gender norms are by definition context-specific, results identified some broader trends. For example, improved crop varieties were the most preferred innovation overall, although the type of crop and characteristics varied by both gender and region. In the East African Highlands for instance, women tend to appreciate cooking banana cultivars that are tasty or easy to cook, while men prefer cultivars with big bunches and a longer shelf life. In this region, gender norms about banana cultivation generally associate their sale for income with “men’s business”, while women mainly access the crop for food preparation at home.

A common trend among women across the 10 countries included in the RTB study was the desire for agricultural innovations that do not required increased dependence on men.

“Examples identified in the GENNOVATE case studies include irrigation equipment in Bangladesh that is bulky, heavy and not easily managed individually by women, and inappropriate transport options in Vietnam such as heavy motorcycles to access hillside farms and carry equipment. It also includes the rejection of sweetpotato storage structures in Tanzania that require men’s contribution to construct,” says Dr Prain.

“Women value technologies that align with their own current realities, such as crops that are suitable for home-gardens and small livestock that can be managed along with domestic and child rearing tasks and in some cases, restrictive physical mobility,” he adds.

These kinds of insights can not only help scientists to better create and target technologies, but also to deliver them in the right way, understanding the factors to encourage adoption and lasting impact.

For example, the study found that encouraging informal social networks helped women to access and share new knowledge from others in their community, even in societies with more restrictive gender norms that might limit their ability to move around independently. Dr. Nozomi Kawarazuka gender researcher from CIP in Asia argues that such findings have significant implications for current RTB programs. She points out that RTB crops and their technologies are often shared through these women to women networks outside formal research and extension systems. She cites the case of seed. To deliver high quality seeds to women farmers, there is a need to develop gender-responsive seed systems that use existing women’s social networks, and non-conventional seed access mechanisms.

Dr Kawarazuka also notes that women’s agricultural innovation is frequently motivated by a more complex set of criteria than economic advantages of RTB crops such as productivity, yield and price. They may also consider how the innovation contributes to her independence and power, as well as to aspects of the crop such as palatability, ease of preparation and cooking and so on. This means that we need to carefully consider women’s social investment in the crop, identify their trait preferences and reflect these aspects in the orientation and content of breeding programs.

Findings from the GENNOVATE research fostered an in-depth understanding of the gender-based shaping of preferences to help RTB formulate interventions that are socially appropriate for women, youth and poor men, thereby leading to higher rates of adoption and more inclusive and equitable impact pathways.

Read the full report here.
Read the summary brief here.  

Seed Tracker: How one app can enhance seed systems for many crops

Members of the IITA team using the Seed Tracker in the field.

Thanks to its tolerance of poor soil, harsh conditions, pests and diseases, cassava is a stable, low-cost staple for millions in sub-Saharan Africa. However, it’s not solely subsistence and small-scale farmers that benefit from the crop – it provides incomes and an industry for medium and large-scale enterprises in the region too.

Despite its widespread importance for food security and as a cash crop, cassava is underperforming and not meeting its full potential for commercial production and processing, export and use in local industry. The average root yield per hectare in Nigeria – the world’s largest producer – is less than half of what it could be.

It starts with seed

One of the biggest barriers to boosting cassava production in Africa lies within the seed production value chain, which is severely fragmented.

“About 90% of cassava seed in sub-Saharan Africa comes from the informal sector and the seed quality is unknown and often infected with viruses,” says Dr. Lava Kumar, Head of the Germplasm Health Unit at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). There aren’t many professional seed producers in vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava, and seed regulatory agencies often lack sufficient capacity to promote and enforce quality seed regulations.

Furthermore, seed regulations are cumbersome and expensive for smallholder seed producers to follow and are often avoided altogether. Still, the most consistent challenge in the industry continues to be a general lack of awareness and information on seed availability and production.

Scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) envisioned a system that addresses these barriers to improving the industry and integrating the fragmented value chain. Towards this, they developed ‘Seed Tracker’, a web-app that focuses on improving cassava seed production and access, usable on any internet-enabled device. In a webinar last month hosted by RTB, Dr. Kumar shared progress and led discussions about the capabilities of the app and its potential to revolutionize cassava production in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is the world’s first web-app for seed value chain integration for enhancing quality seed production and market access to help seed producers meet their potential,” he told participants.

Seed Tracker collects and organizes seed production information, making it easier for institutions to monitor seed quality and certify producers. It provides a database for ready access to information, such as seed quantity, location, variety, geography, and availability. It is a place where producers can find on-demand expert advice on agronomy, plant health and more.

“The inbuilt algorithms of this program connect all key stakeholders, from seed producers, to regulators, traders, and extension services. It’s an integrated suite that allows access to digital data collection tools from any internet-enabled device, and is customizable for different institutional accounts,” Kumar adds.

For example, the app can let buyers know when and where new crop varieties are released, helping to support the adoption and impact of improved varieties developed through breeding programs. It can also help seed producers understand national regulations and register their seeds, a task that used to be so onerous that producers would sidestep registration altogether.

Pilot successes in Nigeria

In 2015, the ‘Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System’ (BASICS) project worked with the government of Nigeria to pilot the Cassava Seed Tracker. They customized the program specifically to meet the priorities of the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC). The Director General of NASC, Dr. P Ojo on 10th October 2018 formally declared Cassava Seed Tracker as e-certification platform for cassava in Nigeria.  

“The Cassava Seed Tracker is helping NASC to understand who, how much and where seed is produced so they can be trained, mainstreamed and certified. It helps them to understand the rules, regulations and best practices to produce quality seed. In time, it will evolve people from informal seed producers to formal seed producers,” explains Dr. Khalid Ishiak, Director Seed Certification and Quality Control of NASC.

The Cassava Seed Tracker is already easing operations, reducing costs, and forecasting trends in production and regulation in Nigeria, where the largest number of people in the world depend on the crop for their food and livelihood. The program was even a finalist in the nation-wide Google Impact Challenge and stood out as a game-changing tool to create economic opportunities in local communities.

Improving seed systems at scale

Seed Tracker has shown its ability to enhance Nigeria’s cassava seed system. However, the software has the potential to transform seed systems both regionally and beyond cassava alone. Designed with scalability in mind, the app has the power to formalize and mainstream production of many food security crops that are equally important but have yet to actualize their full potential.

“We are already using the Seed Tracker platform to design and pilot programs for multiple crops that IITA will be invol­ved in, such as yam,”says Kumar.

The tracker is ready to go. Still, researchers emphasize that this is not a tool to simply be downloaded and implemented. It intentionally requires tailoring depending on the user needs, crop and system, country, and seed regulation structure. With eight other customized platforms in the works, the versatile Seed Tracker technology alludes to a brighter future for the seed production value chain, across fields and scales.

How can you integrate gender and nutrition in your research?

The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA), a CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) project, organized a training workshop on integrating gender and nutrition in agricultural research for development (AR4D), in Kigali, from January 23 -25.The group of 30 participants was very diverse and included 12 women and 18 men from 12 countries; newly starting CIALCA PhD candidates and on-going PhD’ers; researchers from national agricultural research institutes, national universities, FAO/IAEA, and CGIAR, as well as practitioners from the private sector and non-governmental organizations. This diversity was also reflected in the range of participants’ favorite dishes, but less in who they preferred to prepare that dish – a role which, not surprisingly, mostly belonged to women. This triggered a question amongst participants right away: What is the role of men in nutrition? And so we were off to a good start!

A key-objective of this training was for participants to be able to relate and apply gender and nutrition thinking to their own research and work. The training therefore highlighted the research plans of five newly or recently started CIALCA PhD candidates and used these as case-studies. Throughout the training participants worked in teams, each on one of these case-studies, and directly applied concepts and tools which were introduced and discussed in the different lectures. At the beginning this seemed challenging, especially when focus was on more fundamental agronomic issues as is often the case for RTB research. For example, Damas Birindwa’s PhD research focuses on counteracting drought stresses in cassava production. How to integrate gender and nutrition in such fundamental research?

The training sessions consisted of a mix of theoretical lectures, interactive plenary exercises and hands-on team assignments. The schedule was planned to ensure participants first understood the basic concepts in gender and nutrition before transitioning into the applicable linkages, pathways, indicators and research questions. Anne Rietveld, social scientist at Bioversity International and gender focal point for RTB, led the discussions on gender. The funny cartoons and pictures, with hidden gender-related messages that she used, often triggered very lively discussions and new thinking amongst participants on the role on gender in their professional but also in their personal life. Beatrice Ekesa and Roseline Remans, both nutrition research scientists at Bioversity International, led the sessions on nutrition and showed amongst others how nutrition cuts across many disciplines. Their lessons on food groups and guidelines for a healthy diet, were immediately taken to heart by multiple participants during lunch. And thus we were reflecting, not only on how to integrate gender and nutrition in our research, but also in our day-to-day life.

The workshop also provided ample opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and discussion, through team work and the team assignment feedback session which was set up as a game. It was a lively session! The teams came up with innovative ideas, defended their proposals with passion, and challenged each other with difficult but very relevant questions. In the end, Damas’s team, working on drought stress in cassava, won. They explained how cassava leaves constitute both an important source of income for women, and a nutritious relish for household’ diets (particularly protein and fibre). Damas’ research focusing on measuring drought effects on the starchy roots of cassava (which are mainly managed and sold by men) for different varieties, was expanded by also measuring effects on leaves, and selecting for practices and varieties that can help reduce negative drought effects on the leaves. As such the research gained the potential to benefit women and men, and household nutrition.

On the third and last day of the training we discussed heterogeneity in populations, trends and drivers of change; why is it important to consider these in R4D? We dived into typology work and explored how typologies can help us to make sense of heterogeneity. Anne Rietveld, Rhys Manners (IITA / CIALCA data scientist) and Walter Ocimati (Bioversity / CIALCA PhD candidate), presented their rich work on typologies. The session triggered demand for more, and so we were perhaps laying a base for a next, follow-up training.

We are excited that this training planted seeds which will grow and disperse. Rwanda Agricultural Board researcher Svetlana Gaidashova said for instance: “We all talk about gender and nutrition but this helped us to target and focus research for different users”.  Nancy Safari, (Bioversity DR Congo) noted “I learned so much on gender and I understood we can integrate gender in all the work we do. I also realize I was never thinking about nutrition before, yet I now understand it is very important, also for myself”. To close off we cite the leader of the training’s winning team Damas who formulated his key take-away at the end of the training as: “Gender and nutrition bring humanity into research”.

The training materials used for the course can be found here and a dashboard on participants feedback here.

This blog was first published on the CIALCA website on February 11, 2019 and the original post can be found here

Setting the stage for cassava disease monitoring: a baseline for Vietnam and Cambodia


Researchers tracked Sri Lankan cassava mosaic virus in Cambodia after its discovery in 2015. The potentially devastating virus threatens 3.5 million hectares, highlighting the need for disease-resistant varieties and rapid epidemic management.

Southeast Asia is the source of 95 percent of global cassava exports, and the detection in 2015 in Cambodia of the potentially harvest-devastating Sri Lankan cassava mosaic virus (SLCMV) raised alarm. By 2016, the disease – which cannot always be detected visually – had spread, showing its potential to become a major threat to the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farming families.

A farmer prepares cassava stakes in neighboring Vietnam. Cassava planting material often crosses borders. Photo: N.Palmer/CIAT

The virus’s spread over a single growing season was documented by researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and colleagues. Published February 22 in PLOS ONE by Minato et al., the study is the first systematic baseline evaluation of SLCMV in Southeast Asia, and provides information that can help decision-makers and development agencies to control the disease.

“However, the window is likely very short, and decisive collective action is required,” the study warns.

Millions of smallholders grow the cash crop on more than 3.5 million hectares in Southeast Asia, generating over US$4 billion of export revenue.

Quarantine measures, restrictions on the movement of cut stems – which are sold across the region to plant new fields in a loosely regulated informal market – and eradication measures might still offer a means to control the disease. But SLCMV is also spread by a species of whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), and infected plants do not always show symptoms. In the study, 14 percent of infected plants did not have typical visual symptoms. Molecular techniques were used to detect positive infections, paired with photographs of each individually sampled plant to look for visual disease symptoms.

“Documenting the outbreak and spread at an early stage is critical for understanding the dynamics of the epidemic – and pre-empting or responding effectively to future ones,” said Erik Delaquis, a co-author at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture based in Vientiane, Lao PDR. The study builds on a recently published study by Delaquis et al., describing the regional exchange routes for cassava stems that can help researchers predict key points for disease arrival and spread.

“Together, the two studies provide the first published picture of the incidence of SLCMV one year after its discovery in Southeast Asia, and describe for the first time the network of planting material exchange likely to further spread the virus,” Delaquis said.

“Our 2016 study provides an essential benchmark for timeline comparison,” said Nami Minato, a CIAT researcher and the lead author on the latest study.

Resistance needed

Researchers collected some 6,500 samples from 420 fields in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 2016 sampling period, and discovered 49 SLCMV-infected plants across two provinces in Eastern Cambodia. While this represented only a 2 percent infection rate, since that time the disease was reported in Vietnam and Thailand, suggesting that SLCMV has taken hold in Southeast Asia.

Study sites of the 2016 survey and geographical distribution of Sri Lankan cassava mosaic virus (SLCMV).

The potential impact of a widespread SLCMV outbreak is currently unknown, partly because the variety of cassava grown in Southeast Asia differs from those grown elsewhere. But related types of cassava mosaic diseases in cassava varieties in Africa and India have shown the potential to wipe out the plant’s hearty root, which is a major staple food in the developing world and generally sold for industrial starch in Southeast Asia.

As a new disease in the region, many producers are not yet familiar with its symptoms. And currently, no mobile diagnostic tools are available to farmers (though tools are currently being developed). Both issues may facilitate its spread and limit the impact of control measures. Long-term development of resistant varieties of cassava will likely be needed to control SLCMV, necessitating considerable investment in breeding programs over many years, said the researchers. Improved planting material use and distribution practices were also identified to help control the spread of SLCMV and other cassava pests and diseases over long distances.

Funders and partners

This research was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) provided funding for this work through a short research activity grant (SRA). The research team is especially grateful to collaborators and young researchers who helped to provide surveillance for the disease from Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI) and Plant Protection Department (PPD) in Vietnam; General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA) and Provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (PDAFF) in Cambodia; and Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences (CATAS).

Triple S method secures sweetpotato planting material for farmers

“Next season I will fill my farm, and my father’s farm, with sweetpotato,” says Bezabih Hamamo, who is using Triple S technology on his farm in southern Ethiopia to produce his own quality sweetpotato planting material. Triple S, which stands for ‘Storing in Sand and Sprouting’, involves storing sweetpotato roots in sand through the dry season, only allowing them to sprout and produce planting material when the farming season begins again with the rains. This method ensures a consistent supply of seed for farmers while reducing costs and is particularly beneficial in areas with long dry seasons and unpredictable seasons – an increasing challenge under climate change.

Hamamo is from Hawassa Zuria, approximately 40km from Hawassa town, and it is in this area that the Triple S technology is being scaled through the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) Scaling Fund portfolio.

Sweetpotato farmers watch a demonstration of how to set up a Triple S container, storing roots in dry sand. Photo: CIP

Hamamo and his wife, Worke Kuchuta, are enthusiastic orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) farmers and, as part of efforts to scale the technology, have been identified as a Triple S ‘champion household’ tasked with disseminating knowledge on the technology for conservation and multiplication of planting material to farmers in their kebele (village).

Although the next planting season not for another five months, the pair are not worried about where they will find vines to replant their fields. Following the Triple S process, they will store roots in sand in a cool dry place over the dry season. Six weeks before rains are expected, the sprouted roots are taken out of storage and planted in an irrigated seed bed, to produce planting material which will be ready at the beginning of the wet season.

Hamamo was introduced to this technology through the SASHA II project with 20 roots as starter material in 2016 and was trained on how to use the method by Mihiretu Cherinet, a scientist from the International Potato Center (CIP).

Hamamo and Worke produce planting material both for their farm and for sale to other farmers. They attest to the nutritious benefits and income gained from OFSP cultivation. Recently, Hamamo sold roots from a small section of their farm to traders in Hawassa for ETH Birr 7,000 (USD255) and says there is a high demand for the roots. “My six children enjoy OFSP very much, eating it on its own and mixing it with other staples such as kocho and maize,” says Worke. Kocho is a starch extracted from the enset plant, fermented and then used to prepare different local foods.

It is currently the harvesting season and the couple have already identified the section of the farm that they will select roots to use for their Triple S system. The plants in this section look healthy, vigorous and have the medium sized roots ideal for this technology. As they prepare to harvest, Hamamo and Worke are also taking the time to train other farmers on this technology using their farm as a good demonstration that it works. Hamamo emphasizes that with this technology, farmers will not need to depend on projects to distribute vines or spend money to buy vines, instead they are assured of their own quality planting material.

Bezabih Hamamo and Worke Kuchuta on their farm in southern Ethiopia. Photo: CIP

 Hamamo and Worke are not the only ones teaching farmers about this new technology; extension agricultural officers from the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resource Development have partnered with CIP to train other champion households in target villages. They identify four champion households who are trained in a classroom setting, as well as participating in a physical demonstration on how to select healthy roots and set up the Triple S container. In turn, the champion households train other farmers in their respective communities increasing the opportunities of this technology going to scale.

Cherinet highlights the advantages of Triple S, explaining that in the three years that this technology has been in use there has been no observable reduction in yield and no weevils observed, unlike when traditional methods of conserving planting material are used. Traditional conservation methods include preservation under the shade of enset trees during the dry season.

With 48 Triple S champion households in three different districts (Hawassa Zuria, East Badiwacho and Mirab Abaya) cascading knowledge to other households in their communities, the use of Triple S has great potential to positively impact food security, nutrition and income in the region. 

With support from RTB, CIP is implementing the Triple S PLUS initiative with different scaling partners and is also testing effective methods for the dissemination of the Triple S technology by using gender-responsive communication materials in the form of step-down trainings, video-based trainings and radio programs. In partnership with People In Need, a nongovernmental organization working on nutrition projects that include sweetpotato, the Triple S PLUS initiative aims to reach 25,000 households in six districts of Ethiopia. 

This research was supported by CGIAR Trust Fund contributors.

The new generation of women scientists working for global food security

Despite progress in recent years, there still remains a concerning gender gap in science, with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics reporting that less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. A further study by UNESCO has shown that only 30% of female students choose STEM-related fields in higher education, and globally the enrolment of female students in natural science, mathematics and statistics is only 5%.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and improve the incomes and food and nutrition security of root, tuber and banana smallholders, advancement in both science and gender equality is essential.

Our diverse team of scientists working across disciplines and in more than 20 countries are the backbone of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and we are proud to support equal opportunities for women and men in science.

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, we are shining a light on four of our inspiring young women scientists who are working to stop the spread of banana diseases, ensure that new crop varieties benefit women and men equally, develop virus-resistant sweetpotato, improve our understanding of cassava genetics, and much more.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Camila Gonzalez Campo in CIAT’s germplasm bank.

Jolien Swanckaert, Sweetpotato Breeder, International Potato Center (CIP)
A career in plant breeding never gets boring. It is a great way to combine science and field work. And I can contribute to food security in Africa through plant breeding.

Valentine Nakato, Research Associate, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
I desired a career that would keep me interested and passionate and at the same time provide me with new challenges. Globally, plant diseases emerge and re-emerge, impacting on food security, thus requiring new and improved control methods. So, the field keeps me anticipating something and thereby requiring alertness, focus and determination.

Camila Gonzalez Campo, Research Assistant, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
Studying the dynamics of life, from a molecular and cellular level to the level of ecosystem and biosphere, motivated me to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Biology. During my studies, I developed a great interest in plants and the importance of their understanding for the management and maintenance of sustainable ecosystems. This inspired me to focus my career in Plant Genetics and Biotechnology to contribute to global food security and humankind’s well-being.

Pricilla Marimo, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Gender, Bioversity International
Throughout my academic and career life, I have always been drawn to do agricultural research that seeks to understand the gendered aspects and dynamics in farming systems particularly those in an African context. Gender and breeding has aspects which I am interested in exploring such as the risks and benefits associated with introduction of new technologies, like improved crop varieties, and the social consequences of such introductions in the different groups in our societies – women, men, youth, etc.

What does your work focus on?

Pricilla Marimo, second left, conducting field work in Uganda.

I work as a sweetpotato breeder at CIP, currently based in Uganda. We evaluate genetic material from all over the world. The best adapted germplasm is used to develop populations with a high resistance to sweetpotato virus disease.

I am currently engaged in four activities. The first is understanding the genetics of resistance to Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum the cause of the devastating Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) disease, that is ravaging banana production in East Africa. I am also conducting surveillance to map the extent of BXW spread in East Africa. Next, I’m looking at how we can harness microorganisms called endophytes as part of sustainable soil fertility, pest and disease management practices. And lastly, to better understand the effect of a changing climate on diseases we are using altitude bands at watersheds as proxies for climate scenarios and assessing the incidence and severity of banana pests and diseases.

Currently, I’m working at CIAT for the cassava breeding program. I’m working in the cassava genetics lab were I’m developing a cytogenetic study of Latin American cassava subpopulations. The aim of this project is to establish the chromosome number and size of wild and cultivated cassava varieties maintained at CIAT’s germplasm bank.

I am currently evaluating acceptability of new high yielding banana hybrids that are disease and pest resistant, and socio-economic issues related to introduction and adoption of new crop varieties by male and female value chain actors. I am closely working with banana breeders and other social scientists to better understand end users’ needs and preferences that will inform current and future banana breeding efforts.

How is your work supporting equitable benefits for both women and men?

Valentine Nakato in the lab at IITA.

Women and men working along the food chain have different interests. We try to capture all aspects in our breeding program. Our focus on orange fleshed sweetpotato has improved the health of children and pregnant women in rural areas.

Both men and women are engaged in banana production, as this is both a cash and food crop. Managing a devastating disease like BXW, identifying solutions to sustainably increase banana productivity impacts both women and men. When we conduct surveys, our focus group discussions target both women and men as their roles in crop production, technology adoption, use of inputs, managing and controlling plant diseases are expanding, leading to increased yields that are associated with better income.

Although my work is on developing genetic information on cassava chromosomal structure, I believe that it will contribute to cassava breeding by ensuring that the best parental lines are selected to produce superior hybrid lines to improve the crop’s productivity and environmental sustainability and hence benefit equally women or men.

Participatory and gender-sensitive protocols are being used to collect sex-disaggregated data and thus gendered feedback from male and female farmers and other actors in the value chain to inform the banana breeding process capturing context specific dynamics. We are working in five different agroecological zones in Uganda and Tanzania providing recommendations specific to the needs of different groups in those communities. Currently we are preparing to take the new varieties to farmers so that they plant in their own fields.  

What can be done to better support or encourage young women to pursue careers in science?

Jolien Swanckaert checks on sweetpotato plants inside a CIP screenhouse.

My career in science started in Belgium where boys and girls are equally encouraged to go to school and to pursue a career. Having a career as a woman can only happen when the society has a good social care system. When a mother is at work, she wants to be sure that her children are taken care of, and that the tasks in the household are not only resting on her shoulders.

Young women can be encouraged to pursue careers in science through role modelling, career guidance and mentorship. For example, creating environments that promote science through introduction of young women to diverse and relatable examples of women that have pursued careers in science and related disciplines and to combat stereotypes about gender and intellectual ability. The mentoring should start at an early age, in primary and secondary school so that girls grow up knowing that they can do anything they so wish and desire.

I believe that a growth mindset should be taught to encourage and empower young women to pursue careers in science. Women scientist can take part in this by incentivizing girls to do research in science by showing the importance of scientific research for human welfare. On the other hand, offering more study opportunities for young women, especially from developing countries, can be a way to better support women that want to pursue a scientific career.

In my opinion a holistic approach that starts with policies and programs at the national level and ensuring that these are implemented is required to change the status quo for example teaching schemes that encourage and consider gender equality. ‘Start them young’ should be our motto. We need to sensitize, support and encourage both girls and boys so that any stereotypes that may be cultural (or otherwise) which might discourage young women to pursue such careers are addressed early on. Both young girls and boys need to be exposed to examples of women who have succeeded in careers in science from a young age.

What advice would you give to young women who may aspire to, or are beginning, their careers in science?

Camila Gonzalez Campo in the lab at CIAT.

You don’t have to choose between a family or a career. Take the opportunities that are presented and do not wait for something to happen. Take your live in your own hands.

Believe in yourself, have a positive attitude and to always remember that you can do whatever you so desire.

I advise young women who are aspiring or are beginning their careers in science to have self-confidence and believe that they can excel in the field of science and make important contributions to society.

Follow your passion, be open minded and learn new things, explore, take initiative and challenge the status quo if you must!

What is your vision for the future of women and girls in agricultural-related science?

Pricilla Marimo, second left, in the field in Uganda.

Women and girls are very active in agriculture. It is now time to involve them in agricultural science. We will need their experience to build smart agriculture that can provide food security across the world.

I envision a future in which women and girls have no boundaries to their aspirations; where they can do what they desire and have the support they need to realize their dreams.

Women are key drivers for change in sustainable agriculture, food security and rural development. Their participation either from a lab, office or field workspace, has an important role in shaping the future of the agriculture sector. In the future, I vision more women and girls in agriculture-related science with management and leading roles, contributing with their ideas and making important decisions for the innovation and advancement in agriculture. 

I would like to see more women and girls pursuing more agriculture-related research jobs and taking up leadership positions. More resources should be put into programs and trainings that encourage and support women and girls to enter, stay in those fields and rise up the ladder.

Sweetpotato farmers support the scaling of Triple S technology in Ethiopia

“Seven to 10 years ago, sweetpotato was known as ‘the father of children’ because it was available throughout the year. Because the soil had moisture content during the dry season, we were able to conserve our vines by covering them with mulch,” began Merid Mengesha, an elder in Yayike village in the Mirab Abaya district of southern Ethiopia.

“But that is not the case anymore, the soil is dry for long periods causing all vines to dry before the next planting season. This technology has come at the right time,” he said to the room full of participants who had gathered to participate in a Triple S training session being conducted by village development agents.

Merid’s comments reflect the situation of many sweetpotato farmers in the region, who were struggling to produce, access or afford vines to plant their fields with sweetpotato at the beginning of the farming season.

Farmers listen attentively during a training at a Triple S Champion Household. Kolla Barana, Mirab Abaya. Photo: F. Asfaw/CIP

Triple S technology allows farmers to store sweetpotato roots through the dry season in a container of sand. As the rainy season nears, these preserved roots can then be planted in seedbeds and watered to sprout healthy planting material ready for sowing at the optimal time. The simple and affordable system has proven to be effective and is now being scaled to farmers across districts in southern Ethiopia through the support of the Scaling Fund of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

The Triple S PLUS project aims to reach 25,000 households in six districts in this region and is co-funded by RTB, the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resource Development (BoARND), People In Need (PIN), and the SASHA projects.

As part of the scaling approach, scientists from the International Potato Center (CIP) train district officials and village development agents on the benefits of the technology and how to use it. The development agents then identify and train Triple S ‘champion households’ and village leaders, who are in turn tasked with training at least 50 households in their community.

The Triple S ‘champion households’ are provided with training materials that they can use to pass along their knowledge to others at the Village Training Center and in the compounds of champion households.

Teferi Choramo and his wife Tolise Manise, are one such household and are training other farmers in Yayike. The couple were introduced to Triple S three years ago by CIP scientist Mihiretu Cherinet and have since successfully stored roots in sand and sprouted them to produce planting material in time for each planting season. This has positively impacted their household food security as well as income through the sale of roots.

Teferi Chamamo trains farmers at his home in Yayike village. Photo: F. Asfaw/CIP

Choramo and Manise have recently received new training materials and are especially happy with the new flip chart. “When we were trained before, we had to imagine what we were being told,” Choramo said. “Now that we have these materials, we can see pictures on how to set up Triple S and also see the happy farmer and the disappointed farmer!” added Manise. 

The training is accompanied by a practical demonstration on how to select healthy roots for storage, how to dry the sand correctly, set up the storage container, arrange the roots with the right distance between them, and how to cover each layer with sand. Farmers in this area use a plastic container that can hold around 25 to 30 roots.

Tolise Manise emphasizes a point during training at her home. Photo: F.Asfaw/CIP

During the training, farmers have the opportunity to discuss their understanding of the technology as well as address common challenges. One of the challenges identified at Yayike was access to water for irrigation before the rainy season. Officials from the Farmer Training Center in this area agreed to assist farmers with water from the well in their compound for this purpose. The training sessions are also social opportunities where neighbors share coffee and the local snack, kolo – made from roasted barley, chickpeas and peanuts.

Alongside the training materials, CIP and BoANRD plan to broadcast radio programs and project training videos in local languages to disseminate knowledge of this technology for an even wider regional reach.

Scaling the technology will help thousands of sweetpotato farming households in southern Ethiopia to achieve food and nutrition security, by adapting their farming systems to the changing seasons, and to a changing climate.

This research was supported by CGIAR Trust Fund contributors.

Blog by Rosemary Kihiu, Communications, KM and Reporting Manager, and Holly Holmes, Communications Consultant

The transformative power of culinary innovation: Changing perspectives on traditional staples

Roots, tubers and bananas are often seen as “traditional” foods. Yet their colors and flavors vary, and they can be exciting gastronomic ingredients, as well as healthy functional foods. However, despite their many benefits, they tend to fall out of favor as people move to towns and diets change to “modern” and perhaps more convenient foods. Typically, traditional staple foods lack a spokesperson or voice, while industrially processed products are widely promoted through advertising campaigns. That lowers demand for traditional staples and can impact the livelihoods of smallholder growers who produce them. But what can be done to change perceptions?

Women prepare a colorful harvest of native Andean roots and tubers which vary in texture and flavor, making them exciting gastronomical ingredients. Photo: S.DeHaan/CIP

Around 15 years ago, researchers at the International Potato Center (CIP) had the idea to work with top chefs and gastronomy schools in Peru to enhance demand for native potatoes. Here, with more than 3,000 varieties, the country’s native potato biodiversity is the largest in the world, yet farmers growing them often lived in poverty. The idea harnessed the power of gastronomy and influential chefs to shift perceptions about native potatoes, which were not valued as important foods and not well known in urban markets.

Peru is home to more than 3,000 varieties of potato. Photo: CIP.

“The Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA) was used to engage farmers and other value chain actors including supermarkets to promote innovation of a range of new products, including colored chips made from native potatoes which were sold to urban consumers, tourists and through export markets. While fresh native potatoes as a gourmet new product were sold in supermarkets,” says André Devaux, Latin American and the Caribbean Regional Director for CIP, who pioneered the approach.

“We worked with the chefs to show them the huge diversity of native potatoes available, to try out new dishes and to promote native potatoes in new venues such as the Mistura gastronomy fair in the capital Lima,” adds Devaux.

Native potatoes on display at Mistura festival, Lima, Peru in 2014. Photo: V.Durroux/CIP

Native potatoes became one of the star products in the new Novo Andino Cuisine, leading to a marked increase in demand for native potatoes in Peru with benefits for farmers through higher prices. Innovation proved to be a crucial component of the approach – creating new products from well-known but neglected crops.

Building on this success, CIP researchers have recently begun to reach out to a new wave of restaurants in Peru, including the world-renowned Central Restaurant through its research group Mater Iniciativa. Chef Virgilio Martinez designed a special 10-dish tasting menu of potatoes which was shared in a session on culinary innovation during the World Potato Congress earlier in the year in Cusco, Peru. Gonzalo Urbina of Mater Iniciativa explained that “cuisine is the point of intersection of biodiversity and society, so it can play a key role in the revalorization of Andean products and the creation of social value. We are excited to work with CIP in this area.”

A dish prepared using native potatoes served at Virgilio’s restaurant ‘Mil’. Photo: Central Restaurant

At the World Potato Congress session, Chef Marcia Taha of the Gustu restaurant in Bolivia also presented novel culinary innovation developed from native potatoes and other Andean crops. The Gustu initiative is linked to broader transformative culinary education through the Manq’a schools. Manq’a, or “food” in the Aymara language in this region, is a project of cooking schools that seeks to generate life opportunities for young Bolivians with the revaluation and consumption of local products.

The power of culinary innovation has also been harnessed elsewhere, including in Japan where the consumption of indigenous sweetpotato was declining.

Sweetpotato custard pudding topped with dried sweetpotato is one of many innovative dishes developed in Mie, Japan.

“In Mie, Japan, there was a very successful case for transforming the image of indigenous sweetpotato, called Kinkoimo. Before the project, the indigenous sweetpotato was just dried and consumed locally as a snack. However, the younger generation had no interest in the product, which they regarded as “uncool”. The market demand declined sharply,” explains Nozomi Kawarazuka, CIP social scientist.

“To transform its image, a project was established by municipal government, farmers organization, university researchers, chefs and package designers, and utilizing social and traditional media. The dried sweetpotato was then turned into products and now it is viewed as a cool and fancy food,” she adds.

Transforming the image of the crop brought multiple benefits to the community including increased incomes and more tourists. “Most importantly, farmers became proud of their produce,” says Kawarazuka.

A trained chef, Kawarazuka is further embracing the power of gastronomy by teaming up with Graham Thiele, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) to create a series of cooking videos using RTB crops. Through the videos the pair hope to share dishes across cultures and demonstrate that RTB crops are global foods that are staples in traditional dishes worldwide. The first three videos in the series feature the chefs speaking Swahili while preparing patacones – a Latin America snack of fried plantain fritters, sanguche de chicharron – a Peruvian dish made from pork, sweetpotato and bread), and potato samosas.


Indeed charismatic chefs have played central roles in shaping the images of a crop, but the difficulty lies in disseminating the image beyond the restaurant to wider populations. 

“Culinary innovation can be more sustainable if various stakeholders are involved early on. While chefs play a key role, they are also less connected with producers. Agricultural research organizations can bridge relationships between farmers and restaurants, and with the private sectors and governments which can provide financial resources to sustain and scale up,” explains Kawarazuka.

As shown in countries as far apart as Peru and Japan, culinary innovation can play a critical role in changing the perceptions of urban consumers around the use and value of root, tuber and banana crops. Creating an enabling environment for value chain interventions means that the market can scale innovations, leading to sustained livelihood benefits for small-scale farmers.

An interpretation of a traditional Peruvian “pachamanca” served at Central Restaurant. Photo: Central