The orange flesh of sweet potatoes is rich in Vitamin A, an essential micro-nutrient for the healthy development of children. These potatoes are also a good source of starch and they are therefore one of the crops recommended to African growers by bodies such as the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which includes sweet potatoes as part of its ‘HarvestPlus’ programme.
In Zimbabwe, sweet potatoes are becoming more common thanks to a scheme which creates plants by means of tissue culture. This is a biotechnology which involves several techniques to improve plants in order to produce better and more disease-resistant crops. First introduced into Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, tissue culture technology can grow plants from small pieces of plant tissue under sterile conditions. This process can be used where plants don’t produce enough seeds, such as bananas and pineapples, and where cross-pollination to reproduce plants would otherwise be tricky.
The need for nutritious food
A recent food security survey by the country’s Vulnerability Assessment Committee and assessments carried out by the UN’s World Food Programme have estimated there are currently around 1.5 million people in need of food assistance this year in Zimbabwe and this figure is predicted to rise to around 2.2 million next year. Poor harvests have left many families vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.
Supplying sweet potato plants to farmers through tissue culture projects is therefore one way to help combat such malnutrition. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a spokesperson for the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe explained that such projects allowed healthy plants to be created which reduced the risk of crops failing due to viruses. Sweet potato plants can be especially prone to diseases such as viruses, which tissue culture can help inhibit.
With support to farmers and regular plantings since 2006, the programme is therefore ensuring that sweet potatoes are becoming much more common across Zimbabwe, helping growers put nutritious food on the table for their families and allowing them to sell surplus crops in the markets and along roadsides.