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Sweet potatoes to beat climate change?

December 22, 2009

A major obstacle to producing enough food has been the dry weather which hit many African countries last year, including Kenya, where 10 million people urgently needed food when rains failed. Now Kenyan farmers have been asked to grow drought tolerant crops to help prepare for the effects of climate change.

Nancy Opele has been growing sweet potatoes on her farm in Kenya’s western Trans Nzoia district. She started growing the potatoes in 2003 after researchers approached farmers and introduced them to the crop.

“We have discovered that these potatoes just need a small place to grow and they do very well. You harvest a lot of potatoes, Opele told Reuters Africa Journal.

Nancy is part of a group of women in the Bahaso self help group who are planting alternative crops to Kenya’s staple food, maize. Sweet potatoes do well in the region, are hardly attacked by pests and need minimal rainfall to grow. The crop also takes about 5 months to mature, half the time needed by maize.

¬†Sweet potatoes can be stored in the soil for up to 8 months but once harvested they don’t stay fresh for long. Nancy and her friends usually preserve the potatoes by grating them and drying the flakes out in the sun. The flakes are then ground into flour.

The potatoes are gaining popularity after four failed rain seasons led to a drought last year. Experts say it was the worst seen in the country since 1996. Many farmers lost their maize crop but the sweet potatoes did well.

One way to build food security is to promote use of drought tolerant foods like sweet potatoes. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI, is training farmers to plant improved varieties of the crop.

“The main focus of this project was to improve food security and also nutrition,” said Elizabeth Wanjekeche, a researcher with KARI.

The tubers are rich in carbohydrates, calcium and iron, making them highly nutritious. With sweet potato flour the women can make scones, biscuits and cakes for sale.

Rains in parts of East Africa have failed over the last 6 years and experts say things could get worse in the coming months. More farmers will need to plant crops that can adapt to changing weather patterns and improve food security. Sweet potatoes to the rescue?


Thank you for airing the story which was not only captivating, but also very educative. It is true that Africa has been severely hit by the drastic effects of climate change leading to unending droughts which are replaced by floods whenever it rains, as it is being witnessed all over the continent.

It is such initiatives like the introduction of drought tolerant food crops such as sweet potatoes which are nutritious and more importantly cost effective, as a result of continuous research, that would help Africa mitigate the effects of climate change, and here is where African governments’ support together with that of international donors should be geared to.

Also, changing our eating habits by adopting different kinds of food crops which are not necessary our staple food such as sweet potatoes will further help to survive the dry periods.



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