Ruth Butaumocho : Gender Editor
“Sweet potato is a drought tolerant crop with the potential to enhance food and nutrition security, especially for subsistence and small-scale farmers in the country. With use of minimal fertilisers, farmers can expect to get high yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare.”It is barely dawn when Mrs Adams grabs her plastic bucket and heads for her sweet potato garden on the edge of Muriel Mine residential area where she is domiciled.
Although the weather is wintry, with frost covering the narrow path leading to the garden, she is unperturbed and deftly manoeuvres her way towards the nursery plants.
With prospects of a devastating El Nino-induced drought looming, Mrs Adams now hinges her hope on the sweet potato hectarage she intends to plant once her nursery is ready for transplanting.
Mrs Adams is among hundreds of farmers in the Zvimba North constituency who are set to venture full throttle into sweet potato production, as farmers seek alternatives to maize to avert hunger.
With two years of continued food shortage as a result of the El Nino-induced drought, most farmers have been failing to harvest enough to feed their families, let alone save enough to sell on the market.
Effects of climate change, where rainfall patterns have become irregular and continue to shift, have not made their life any easier.
It is against that background that farmers in this community are now hinging their hopes on sweet potatoes to alleviate food shortages in their community.
“We have been pinning our hopes on maize and other cash crops for the past two seasons, but these have been performing dismally as a result of drought, leaving us with no alternatives.
“We are now looking at sweet potatoes as an alternative among our major considerations,” said Mrs Vhengani Cunningham, a commercial farmer in Banket, who has one hectare of the crop this farming season.
Already more than 20 farmers from the constituency’s 17 party districts are undergoing training on sweet potatoes nursery production and how to process the crop into several by-products, to add value to the produce.
The project, which is bankrolled by the MP for the area, Cde Ignatious Chombo, will ensure that more than 1 900 households in the constituency get sweet potatoes cuttings for one hectare for the forthcoming farming season.
Coordinator of the sweet potatoes project for Zvimba North, Ms Pamela Jaiwa, said they were targeting household nutrition as emphasised in the Zim-Asset.
“Traditionally, this constituency and other areas in Zimbabwe contributed a lot to food security in the country and were considered as major contributors towards the breadbasket status, but this is being hampered by erratic rains and continued drought.
“We still want to maintain that status and ensure people continue to get food, hence our decision to providing farmers with viable alternative,” said Ms Jaiwa.
Ms Jaiwa added that sweet potatoes had proved to be a viable option because the crop is drought resistant, has high yields and a suitable cash crop.
She added that there were efforts to ensure that all the farmers would have gained knowledge on benefits of planting the crop by the onset of the rains for the 2016 /2017 farming season.
After the training, each household will get free sweet potato seed for one hectare.
“We are training our farmers on the importance of value addition, something that President Mugabe has been emphasising for a long time. With sweet potatoes, farmers would be able to get many by-products such as maize meal, flour, stock-feed, beer, ethanol and starch which is used in the production of rubber, plastics and several other accessories,” she said.
In addition to a coterie of by-products, sweet potatoes have more nutritional benefits than other cash crops, and contain Vitamin A that is important in boosting the immune system.
Peter Mirisau, of the Horticultural Research Institute, said farmers stand to benefit from increasing their hectarage of sweet potatoes, which is slowly becoming an alternative to maize in light of the effects of climate change.
“Sweet potato is a drought tolerant crop with the potential to enhance food and nutrition security, especially for subsistence and small-scale farmers in the country. With use of minimal fertilisers, farmers can expect to get high yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare,” he said.
Mr Mirisau urged farmers to increase their sweet potato, saying it could become the best cash crop for farmers after maize, which was already showing signs of depletion owing to erratic rains.
Sweet potato forms part of the world’s most important and versatile crops. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, with an annual production of about 107,3 million tonnes, it is recorded as the firth most important food crop in developing countries.
Historically sweet potato is amongst the oldest crops in the world, especially in the wet tropics and was among the first staple crops before the introduction of cereals.
Today it is counted among root crops such as cassava, yams and aroids that represent the second most important set of staple foods in developing countries, closely following cereals.
Contrary to assertions that it is a Western crop, Portuguese explorers are believed to have introduced sweet potatoes to Africa in the 16th century.
From there it was taken to Eastern and Western parts of the world in the form of storage roots by Spanish explorers. When it failed to yield in European countries because of low temperatures, it was brought back to Africa and was planted in the warm coastal regions where it spread rapidly.
Over the years agriculturalists have often classified sweet potato as a neglected and under-utilised crop and only considered as a supplementary food crop. However, frequent droughts in most Southern African countries have seen agriculture experts turning to the sweet potato in efforts to ensure food security.
“It is an excellent food crop. It often survives where staple crops fail. A supplementation in rural area household, where there is Vitamin A deficiency is more prevalent, makes it a crop of choice,” opined Mr Mirisau.
The potential for sweet potato in prevention of starvation and in mitigating drought situations in developing countries in Southern Africa is well documented.
The Malawian government has been encouraging its farmers to plant sweet potato to improve on Vitamin A which is a public concern in that country. Over the years, the Malawian government had been distributing Vitamin A capsules to malnourished children and lactating mothers to reduce Vitamin A deficiency until it realised that sweet potatoes could actually ameliorate the challenge.
In 2000 when Mozambique was ravaged by floods, destroying all crops, the Mozambican government turned to sweet potatoes to feed its people, whilst waiting for aid to trickle in.
The importance of sweet potatoes to ensure food security has been recognised globally over the years. During the early 1960’s China was plagued by famine and the availability of sweet potatoes saved millions of its population from starvation.
For Chief Chidziva, production of sweet potato crop in his area would be a game changer for his people who have been struggling to cope with the effects of drought.
“The farmers are already seeing waning fortunes as a result of drought. The effort that our MP (Chombo) is putting into this project should be supported by hard work to ensure that my people do not die from hunger,” he enthused.