Sweet potato farmer, Gerald Action, joins CIP Research Scientist, Felistus Chipungu, in appreciating the vine that has transformed his livelihood. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR

Sweet returns for sweet potato farmers in Malawi

Higher yields plus greater climate resilience add up to greater profits and food and nutrition security for farmers  
Sweet potato farmer, Gerald Action, joins CIP Research Scientist, Felistus Chipungu, in appreciating the vine that has transformed his livelihood. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR

Gerald Action built his house from sweet potatoes – but not in the way you might think. The farmer from Nsanje District in Southern Malawi says his family’s livelihood was transformed when he switched to planting improved varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. 

 

“When I adopted this style of farming, planting this crop, it made a big difference to my family,” he says. “At first, I was sleeping in a grass thatched house. Now, I have constructed a [brick] house.” 

 

 
Gerald and his family in front of their near-finished brick house. Gerald was able to construct a brick home for his family after learning new farming techniques and switching to improved varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
Gerald and his family in front of their near-finished brick house. Gerald was able to construct a brick home for his family after learning new farming techniques and switching to improved varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 
It made a big difference to my familyGerald Action - Farmer

 

Gerald says he’s also been able to purchase an ox cart, two oxen, a motorcycle and a pushbike, all from the profits made from the newly adopted crop and farming technique. 

 

Compared to the types of sweet potato Gerald used to plant, the new varieties provide higher yields, and are more resilient to drought, pests and diseases. This means that his family not only has enough to eat, but also enough to sell.  

 

 
Gerald’s family eats a nutritious porridge made from orange-fleshed sweet potato mash, maize meal, groundnut flour and vegetables, as learned via training on healthy diets by CIP technicians. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
Gerald’s family eats a nutritious porridge made from orange-fleshed sweet potato mash, maize meal, groundnut flour and vegetables, as learned via training on healthy diets by CIP technicians. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 

 

The sweet potatoes themselves are a healthy choice for his family with enriched levels of Vitamin A, they ward off one of the world’s most common and most dangerous nutritional deficiencies, particularly for children under the age of five.  

 

The money made from selling the sweet potatoes further contributes to his family’s wellbeing – with money to spend on a variety of food and invest in diversified crop production, the change has meant a move beyond subsistence living.  

 

 
In the tissue culture lab, monitoring the growth of sweet potato plantlets for further multiplication. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
In the screen house, assessing newly transplanted plantlets. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 

 

Gerald was introduced to the new varieties of sweet potato by the International Potato Center (CIP), as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), in cooperation with the Department of Agricultural Research Services at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Malawi. 

 

CIP Research Scientist Felistus Chipungu is part of the team working to develop improved sweet potato varieties for farmers like Gerald. She has spent more than two decades breeding varieties that mature earlier, produce greater yields, are more nutritious, are preferred by growers and consumers, and show greater resilience to changing climate conditions. 

 

“Sweet potato is one of the crops which is very resilient to effects of climate change,” she says.  

 

Climate change has been the number one challenge faced by the community in Nsanje and other Districts of Malawi in recent years. Prolonged drought and a lack of water for irrigation have severely impacted production. 

 

 
Felistus at work in one of the breeding experimental fields. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
Felistus and Gerald assess their harvest. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 
Sweet potato is one of the crops which is very resilient to effects of climate changeFelistus Chipungu - Researcher

 

The new varieties introduced by Felistus and team have shown resilience in the face of these conditions. Assistance in constructing wells and designing irrigation systems, from CIP in partnership with Concern Worldwide, have also helped improve yields for the community. 

 

Gerald claims that the improved sweet potato varieties require less frequent irrigation, while still producing high yields. They require no fertilizer or other chemicals to grow, and are not labor-intensive, making them suitable for men and women. The savings in water and labor can be used to diversify crop production, bringing greater dietary variety and a higher income for households.  

 

 
Gerald’s wife uses a treadle pump to irrigate crops. A changing climate and lack of water are some of the top concerns for the farming community. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
Gerald’s wife uses a treadle pump to irrigate crops. A changing climate and lack of water are some of the top concerns for the farming community. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 

 

Breeding for resilience and therefore making a greater contribution to human livelihoods is what makes me happy,” Felistus says. 

 

“These improved varieties are providing solutions to the hunger problems faced by many Malawian farmers. If you go around in this community, you will find many tangible and visible impacts attributed to these varieties. As in Gerald’s case, many other families are building decent homes, buying assets, and, most importantly, paying school fees and ensuring their families have quality food.  

 

Gerald now sees himself as an agent of change and is doing his part to share what he has learned with others in his community.  

 

“The community is benefiting a lot from the knowledge that I have,” he says. 

 

 
Felistus shows an example of Royal Choice, a newly released improved variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
Felistus shows an example of Royal Choice, a newly released improved variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Photo by C. De Bode/CGIAR
 
 
Donor acknowledgements

Research into the development of new varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato was funded by Irish Aid and African Green Revolution, and implemented in collaboration by CIP and the Malawian Government. CIP believes in working in partnership for a greater impact in technology delivery. The work in Nsanje was conducted in partnership with Concern Worldwide and the Malawian Extension Department of the Ministry of Agriculture.

This research is made possible thanks to the CGIAR Trust Fund, and other funding partners who provide invaluable support to CGIAR Research Programs through targeted projects and bilateral investments in CGIAR Research Centers. Please consult our Funders page for more details.

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