Category Archives: News

Lessons from 21 years of breeding Eastern Africa‘s popular cooking bananas

Transporting bananas in Bujumbura, Burundi

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)  and Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) started a breeding program for the East Africa Highland Bananas (EAHB) in the mid-1990s that has delivered exciting results including the first-ever hybrids, dubbed  NARITAs.

A team of scientists at IITA, NARO, and SLU reviewed the progress and efficiency of this breeding program in the past 21 years at its IITA station in Uganda and outlines progress made to overcome unique botanical challenges encountered in the breeding system of bananas.

The East African Highland cooking banana, known as Matooke, is an important staple food and cash crop for millions of people in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa. Banana covers over 50% of the permanent cropped area in the region which produces more than half of the total bananas produced in Africa. Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda produce annually 21 million tons of bananas with a value of US$4.3 billion.

The production of bananas has declined in the last three decades due to attack by a myriad of pests and diseases, declining soil fertility and drought resulting in a high yield gap – with farmers’ harvests averaging between 5-30 t/ha against a potential of 80 t/ha. Some of the contributing pests include banana weevil and burrowing nematode and diseases include black Sigatoka or black leaf streak disease and banana bacterial wilt.

While breeding for improved varieties with resistance to these pests and disease was identified as the most sustainable method for addressing these production challenges, these bananas were for many years regarded as sterile with 0 and 1.5 seeds produced per bunch.  The breeding program was initiated when the team identified 37 female fertile EAHB during screening for seed set after artificial pollination. These bananas produced up to a maximum of 25 seeds per pollinated bunch.

In addition to the low seed sets produced by the bananas, another challenge was low seed germination –estimates show that only 1% of hybrid seed germinates when planted in the soil.  The seeds were therefore germinated in the tissue culture lab which increased rates of seed germination by a factor of 3 to 10%.

Read the full news story on the Breeding Better Bananas website.

Safeguarding the future of banana against changing climates, pests and diseases

Koenraad Debackere, Managing Director of KU Leuven, and Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General of Bioversity International, sign a framework agreement to safeguard banana diversity. Credit: Bioversity International/R.China

KU Leuven and Bioversity International today sign a landmark agreement to safeguard the future of the world’s favourite fruit. 

Professor Rony Swennen is a world authority in banana science having researched bananas for more than 40 years. “Bananas are facing major challenges,” he says. “The world population is growing and banana yields need to increase. Banana plantations usually only contain one type of banana which makes them vulnerable, for example, to climate change or to pest and disease outbreaks – a massive 40% of the world’s bananas are Cavendish bananas, which are genetically similar.”

Yet there are more than 1,500 varieties of edible and wild species of banana in the Bioversity International Musa Germplasm Collection here at KU Leuven, curated by Ines van den houwe, Bioversity International. “The collection is the richest source of banana diversity in the world, with the potential to contribute to more resilient banana production systems. This new agreement helps secure the future of banana diversity,” she explains.

Dessert bananas and plantains, and other cooking bananas, are an important source of nutrition and income around the world.  Bananas are produced in 135 countries and territories across the tropics and subtropics. The majority producers are farmers who grow the crop for either home consumption or for local markets (less than 15% of the global production of more than 144 million tonnes is exported). An estimated 30 million people subsist on bananas and related species as the principal source of dietary carbohydrate.

“Bananas are an essential food crop, especially in Africa and Asia,” Professor Swennen continues. “Unlike our sweet banana they are mainly cooked. For example, in Uganda, bananas provide 20% of the daily caloric intake, increasing to around 70% in some areas of Western Uganda. To improve the yield of bananas, we need more research and understanding, better agricultural techniques and sufficient healthy banana varieties. For example, our long-term goal is to find a whole range of ‘climate-smart’ bananas – the most suited to each type of climate. These kinds of planned activities are why this collaboration between KU Leuven and Bioversity International is essential.”

Read the full news story on Bioversity International 

Malawian entrepreneur creates nutritious products and a new market for farmers

Jean Pankuku inside her bakery and bread store in Blantyre, Malawi. Photo credit V. Atakos (CIP-SSA)

After six years of helping others add value to their businesses, Malawian food technologist Jean Pankuku was so convinced of the nutritional merits and commercial prospects of orange-fleshed-sweetpotato (OFSP) breads and other baked products that she opened her own business – the Tehilah Bakery and Value Addition Centre. It’s hardly a surprise that the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists recognized her achievements and future potential in 2017 by bestowing on her its coveted Emerging Leaders Network award.

The Tehilah Bakery and Value Addition Centre, located 20 kilometers from Malawi’s second largest city, Blantyre, focuses on commercializing nutritious and healthy foods using locally grown crops. Jean founded it after years of helping other Malawian businesses develop commercial products based on a range of crops.

The bakery produces and sells innovative foods based on root and tuber crops. It was therefore only natural that Jean partner with the International Potato Center (CIP), which is implementing a five-year project called Root and Tuber Crops for Agricultural Transformation (RTC-ACTION) in Malawi. Funded by Irish Aid, RTC-ACTION is implemented by CIP and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, in collaboration with local partners.

RTC-ACTION works with the private sector to enhance value addition in cassava, potato, and sweetpotato market chains. CIP acts as the initial link, connecting farmers and local businesses that can buy their surplus production and transform it into nutritious foods. CIP’s partnership with Tehilah Bakery aims to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who produce cassava, potato, and OFSP, many of whom face major challenges in marketing their crops.

Processing of sweetpotato into puree at Tehilah Bakery. Photo credit V. Atakos (CIP-SSA)

“I established a partnership with CIP focused on perfecting various products made from OFSP, as well as promoting them in urban markets. When new varieties are released, I assess them to determine their suitability for products such as puree, crisps among others,” said Jean. So far, her favourite OFSP varieties for processing are Kadyaubwerere and Chipika, both bred and released by Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research Services in collaboration with CIP.

Officially registered in March 2017, Tehilah began by conducting taste tests in various forums, including training sessions of CIP partners. Tehilah’s OFSP-based products were highly rated by the tasters, who were impressed by the fact that the bread is also a good source of vitamin A. CIP then supported the bakery in getting its products certified by the Malawi Bureau of Standards, in August 2018. This cleared the way for the OFSP bread and buns – the first of their kind in Malawi – to be sold to consumers.

Tehilah Bakery has six full-time employees and hires part-time staff when needed. Though relatively new, its OFSP and cassava bread and buns have rapidly gained popularity. While consumers like their flavor, development partners recognize the potential of these innovative products for creating a new market for relatively poor, small-scale farmers. Jean’s determination helped her gain support from the United Nations Development Programme, which will enable her to acquire additional bakery equipment needed to keep pace with rapidly rising demand.

“As sweetpotato is a seasonal crop in Malawi, I have ordered additional freezing equipment to freeze enough puree during periods of abundance for use when OFSP is scarce,” noted Jean.

Once the bakery starts operating to full capacity, the farmers who supply it will be able to intensify and expand their OFSP production. Jean also plans to add new products, including OFSP-based biscuits, over the next two or three years, which will further increase the bakery’s demand for sweetpotato.

In early 2019, the bakery was on course to buy 20 metric tons of OFSP roots to make puree, which it substitutes for 40 percent of the wheat flour used to make bread and buns. “This year, we hope to take our production higher, to a minimum of 5,000 loaves of OFSP bread each month. With the promotion, we are seeing more demand for this bread,” Jean said.

Jean sells OFSP bread in her bakery and shop. Photo credit V.Atakos (CIP-SSA)

Substitution of expensive wheat flour with OFSP puree has reduced Tehilah’s production costs. “When I do the costing with products made from 100 percent wheat flour and compare this with OFSP based products, my profit margin is 10 percent higher with OFSP products,” Jean explained. She added that OFSP’s natural sweetness means she doesn’t have to use a lot of sugar in the bread, resulting in lower costs and healthier products.

Malawi spent more than USD 30 million on imported wheat in 2017, so such innovations have the potential to reduce the trade deficit if adopted on a national scale. In the foreseeable future, Tehilah’s target is to purchase over 50 tons of OFSP roots per year for the production of bread and other products. Given the market price of USD 0.21 per kg, this means that local farmers will share more than USD 10,000 annually.

This is just the start for Tehilah. Jean plans further diversification with new baked products based, as well as selling fresh potatoes, sweetpotatoes and cassava, all of which contribute to improved nutrition for consumers and farming families.  

OFSP bread, buns and cassava bread on display. Photo credit V.Atakos (CIP-SSA)

As the bakery’s production grows, so will farmer demand for quality planting material – essential for achieving high yields – for varieties released with the qualities that the bakery needs. This will, in turn, generate income for decentralized vine multipliers: small-scale entrepreneurs who CIP and partners have trained to produce and sell quality sweetpotato planting material. So the value chain will extend from vine multipliers to farmers to Tehilah staff.

The blog was written by Felistus Chipungu, CIP, Lilongwe, Malawi with contributions from Vivian Atakos, Regional Communications Specialist – CIP SSA.

Scaling Triple S through collaborating with Damongo Agricultural College, Ghana

In July 2018 Issahaq Suleman, CIP’s Triple S scaling champion in Ghana, paid a visit to Damongo Agricultural College in the West Gonja district of Northern Ghana, with the goal of advocating for practical training on farming improved varieties of orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP). He also wanted to introduce the college to the use of Triple S technology, to conserve roots and generate quality planting material after a long dry season such as that experienced in Northern Ghana. Damongo Agricultural College is one of the five colleges in the country that train agricultural extension agents. It offers both certificate and diploma courses and currently has 224 students who undergo training over a maximum period of two years.  One of the goals of the Triple S scaling project in Ghana, funded by the RTB Scaling Fund, is to increase the number of farmers aware of the technology through influencing the inclusion of the technology in the curriculum of institutions that train agricultural extension agents (AEA). AEAs are government agents who work with farmers to continuously train farmers on good agricultural practice and new technologies.

During Suleman’s visit, he met with the acting principal of the college at the time, Mohamed Adam, and explained the advantages of OFSP for food and nutrition security, the availability of improved varieties released by the national research institution, CSIR – CRI (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – Crops Research Institute) as well as improved farming technologies aimed at improving yield. Triple S is one such technology as it allows farmers to have quality planting material in sufficient quantities, in time for the planting season. Traditionally, roots are conserved by burying them in the field which exposes them to weevils, which in turn affects the quality of the planting material generated.

Damongo Agricultural College was receptive to the technology and with a go-ahead from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), underwent an initial training. There were 126 students and eight tutors involved in the trainings that were delivered through printed material, instructional videos and hands-on demonstration of the innovation. After the training, the students cultivated an acre of OFSP on the College premises in August 2018.

In November, the roots were ready for harvesting and sorting for storage. CIP then organized training on how to harvest, select and store OFSP in the sand (in a pit or a basin).

Storage pit with a capacity to hold 500 kilos, Damongo Agricultural College                              Photo Credit: I. Suleman

Recently, participants at the annual Triple S review and planning meeting, held in Tamale from the 22nd – 24th of January, visited the institution as part of a learning journey[1] to engage with the students and tutors on their experience with the Triple S technology.

“The course was very interesting and will have a good impact, because we watched videos, clearly describing the technologies, followed by practical training. This was the first time we were shown a video, which helped us to quickly understand the innovation and apply it practically. We learned a lot about the nutritional benefits of OFSP and how one can store roots up to 4 months by sorting out the damaged roots, arranging the good roots in a sandpit or basin and monitoring them on a monthly basis” said Yakubu Muzanin, a second-year student at the College.

Learning journey participants, students and tutors meet at the Damongo Agricultural College
Photo Credit: Asfaw F

Richard Dantey, a tutor at the College, told the visiting group that they have developed courses which address OFSP and the Triple-S innovation namely: roots and tubers crops, post-harvest and storage technology, farm-led nutrition, and practical cookery.

The students now have a full understanding of the technology and have identified income generating opportunities they can engage in such as producing vines for sale to farmers and roots for sale to processing plants. Interestingly, the male students are more inclined to the production of vines while the female students favor roots production. Roots harvested from the trial plot were consumed by the students as part of their meals at the college.

Richard Annobil, Director of Human Resources and Capacity Building at MoFA, who was also one of the participants in the learning journey; has become an advocate for OFSP and Triple-S at the national level. He proposes adaptation and dissemination of course materials to the three other agricultural colleges, as well as five farming training institutes in Ghana. This will help in the sustainable integration of OFSP and Triple-S into the national education system. He promised to support the International Potato Center (CIP) and Damongo Agricultural College participate in the national revision of curricula for agricultural training, an exercise scheduled for July 2019, so that they would make the case for incorporation of the Triple S technology to other stakeholders.

Issahaq Suleman from CIP and Richard Dantey, a tutor from Damongo Agricultural College, inspect seed beds planted using material germinated using the Triple S technology. Photo: T Van Mourik/CIP

Getting OFSP and Triple-S into the national agricultural training curricula is key to encouraging self-scaling of this technology without additional financial support from projects. Another key factor for success is getting these innovations into the annual workplans of the regional and district levels development plans, so that budget is available for dissemination in the future.

“With such a strong partnership and clear benefits of OFSP and the Triple S innovation for food and nutrition security, as well as business opportunities in Ghana, the sky is the limit!”  concluded Richard Annobil (MoFA).

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

[1] A Learning Route (LR) is a planned journey with learning objectives that are designed based on i) the knowledge needs of development practitioners that are faced with problems associated with rural poverty and, ii) the identification of relevant experiences in which local stakeholders have tackled similar challenges in innovative ways, with successful results and accumulated knowledge which is potentially useful to others. The Route allows for the experiential encounter between travelers and hosts, both having mutually useful experiences and knowledge. For more information on LRs, visit

MRC Training in December 2018, Photo credit: Camille Joy Enalbes

Capturing stories of women through the Most Significant Change Approach

Story-telling is a powerful communication tool as it is useful to captivate people’s interest. The Food Resilience through Root and Tuber Crops in Upland and Coastal Communities of the Asia Pacific (FoodSTART+) uses the Most Significant Change (MSC) approach to gauge the impact of the Farmers Business School (FBS) interventions and showcase the outcomes brought to the target beneficiaries of its partner International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) investment projects such as the Fisheries, Coastal Resources, and Livelihood (FishCORAL) Project and the Integrated Natural Resources and Environmental Management Project (INREMP) in the Philippines.

MSC is a participatory monitoring and evaluation tool that allows community members to tell the story of what they value as a significant change in their personal lives that was brought about by a project.

As a starting activity for this collaboration, FoodSTART+ organized a training workshop on the MSC approach for nine members of its team and partners from FishCORAL and INREMP on 25-26 September 2018 in Tagbilaran, Bohol in the Philippines. The training aimed to equip the participants on using the approach to evaluate the FBS through stories and become trainers themselves.

Willy Pradel, an agricultural economist from the CIP Headquarters in Lima, Peru and an expert in the approach, served as the resource person. Following the theoretical part, the group had firsthand experience on story collection with the involvement of the FBS participants in Lundag Eskaya Tribe Multipurpose Cooperative (LETMULCO) in Pilar, Bohol, which is one of INREMP’s project sites. By conversing with the cooperative members, training participants identified the various changes that occurred upon the implementation of the FBS – mostly increased knowledge of food processing, product development, and business and marketing skills.

In December 2018, a new batch of INREMP staff was trained on MSC in Bohol. The training involved story collection in three FBS sites, the San Miguel Association Resource Team (SMART), the San Carlos Association for Rehabilitation of Environmental Denudation (SCARED), and the Concepcion Livelihood and Environmental Association Project (CLEAP).

One story came from Elizabeth Timblaco, Manager of Camoteville, SCARED Group Brgy., San Carlos, Danao, Bohol. The SCARED Group chose sweetpotato as the main crop for processing in the FBS as it is the most common crop planted by farmers in their area.

MSC Training in December 2018, Photo credit: Camille Joy Enalbes

Elizabeth said that during her involvement in the FBS, she learned that aside from the simply steamed sweetpotato and camote cue (caramelized sweetpotato snack), they can process it into other delicacies that will generate higher income. She learned the basics on how to process and properly package the products from the various trainings conducted. The SCARED Group was also able to share the knowledge and learnings to their neighbors which strengthen their bond.

She shared that a significant difference made by the FBS in their community is that people are now being more productive by participating in the processing of products. Before the FBS, there were a lot of bystanders in their area playing card games.

“I can say that the significant change of the FBS is that it helped our community minimize the vices of the people. It also provided income which is a huge help in the daily needs of the people in the area,” Elizabeth mentioned.

Another significant difference is that they were able to pay the school allowance for their children. She said that by letting their children help to sell their products, the kids are learning to save money and how to be business-minded people that will help them in their future endeavors.

“There are also times that we let our kids sell the products in their respective schools and in return we give them commission,” she added.

As a member of the SCARED Group Board of Directors, Elizabeth is looking forward to the time when they can stand on their own as an organization after INREMP ends. She also hopes for the business to expand so that those people in the area who are working outside the community will be able to come back to their families without worrying about money because there will be jobs for them.

Another story was from Apoloniana N. Bingas, Member of Camoteville, SCARED Group Brgy. San Carlos, Danao, Bohol. She is a housewife and has always hoped to have a better life and a good future for her children but was doubtful as she doesn’t have any source of income. With prayers, perseverance, and love from her family, she never lost hope and vision that someday they will be able to have a greater life ahead.

MSC Training in September 2018, Photo credit: Irish Viola Sta. Ana

In 2017, Apoloniana was one of the 20 people who joined the FBS in their community. With eagerness and curiosity, the enrollees attended several meetings and trainings about the FBS and learned from the seven modules of the FBS.

She felt fortunate that she was able to deepen her knowledge in promoting their products to the market through her personal encounter with the customers that she got to know from the FBS. She became one of the workers in Camote Ville where they process products out of sweetpotato such as chips, jam, ketchup and juice/beverage. Today, their products are already in the market and are being displayed at Bensan Store, Danao Adventure Park, and the nearby schools.

Sweetpotato juice and chips are their best sellers while sweetpotato jam is on order basis only. The association is creating some innovations and strategies in order for them to tap more customers in the market and be known. Aside from the employment and additional income the community has also relished the health benefits of sweetpotato, being it rich in vitamins and minerals.

Out of the profit, the association is gaining, Apoloniana receives a daily salary of about 75 to 100 pesos (US$ 1.5-2.0), which allows her to provide snacks such as sweetpotato chips and juice to her children.

She personally hopes that the FBS trainings and workshops will continue and extend more assistance to them so that they will continue to grow and be able to learn more techniques for the success of their chosen business. And as a woman, she will be motivated, refreshed about business, equipped, and have a strong mindset as challenges of the business come along.  Apoloniana’s life-changing motto is to “make your mindset a top business priority because the action you take (or don’t take) always stems from your thoughts. Plan your work and work your plan.”

The significant change that happened to the communities due to the FBS is that their socio-economic status has improved. Women are empowered through employment and have access to additional income for their families. The knowledge and skills the community acquired through the FBS trainings and workshops are priceless.

The MSC stories on the FBS will be compiled in a coffee table book, which is planned to be published in the second quarter of 2019.

The blog was written by Arma R. Bertuso and Camille Joy V. Enalbes


Dart, JJ. & Davies, R. 2003. A Dialogical, Story-Based Evaluation Tool: The Most Significant Change Technique. American Journal of Evaluation. Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 137-155.

Serrat, O. 2009. The Most Significant Change Technique. Asian Development Bank. Retrieved from

Additional Info:

The MSC is a useful and participatory technique in the monitoring and evaluation of an intervention that does not employ quantitative indicators (Serrat, 2009).  According to Dart and Davies (2003), the MSC is a “dialogical, story-based technique with a primary purpose to facilitate program improvement by focusing the direction of work towards explicitly valued directions and away from less values directions”. First used in a rural development program in Bangladesh, (Davies, 1996 as cited by Dart & Davies, 2003), MSC is now used by many international development organizations to monitor and evaluate their programs (Dart, J & Davies, R, 2003).

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 helps 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 learned how to use ridges instead of beds when planting her vines. She also learned 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’.



The blog is 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