Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Transforming Sweet Potato to Help Feed a Changing World

This blog is a follow up to the article Affordable, Delicious and Nutritious: Scaling OFSP in Malawi and is written by Simon Heck of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Uganda. This article reflects on the broader context in which sweet potato processing can contribute to better nutrition and livelihoods at large scale in Africa and elsewhere.   

Did you know that sweet potato is the seventh most important food crop worldwide, supporting lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farming families and consumers in over 100 countries? Nevertheless, sweet potato is still vastly underutilized as a source of nutritious and innovative food products that meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s world. How do we waken this sleeping giant and unleash its power to address global challenges of malnutrition and poverty? This is the exciting challenge CIP has taken on, working in collaboration with USAID and a range of research and development partners in over 20 countries.

An important step forward has been the development and dissemination of over 70 biofortified orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) varieties by CIP and local partners in Africa. Today, more than 3.1 million smallholder farming families produce and consume OFSP and reap well-documented health and income benefits — an achievement recognized with the 2016 World Food Prize. The next big question is how to bring these benefits to much larger populations, many of whom are urban with widely different food preferences and socio-economic conditions but willing and able to pay for new food products.

A big part of the answer is transforming sweet potato from a largely rural crop to a source of nutritious food for all. Although urbanization and economic development historically reduced the consumption of bulky and perishable staple crops like sweet potatoes, this is no longer so.

Improved storage and processing technologies and a broader understanding of the health benefits of sweet potatoes have energized both supply and demand. Leading sweet potato-producing countries like the U.S. and China are showing the way forward. Here, sweet potatoes have become an ingredient in hundreds of food products from baby foods to snack foods, beverages, noodles and instant foods, adding important nutrition and functional qualities that provide consumers with healthy, diverse and affordable food options.

CIP, USAID and partners have set out to expand this sweet potato transformation to Africa, building the capacity of African sweet potato farmers and food processors to meet the tremendous demand for nutritious food on the continent. By 2050, 70 percent of Africa’s population, 1.7 billion people, will live in cities, and, of these, 800 million — over twice the US population — will be below the age of 15. Ensuring healthy and affordable diets at this scale will require fundamental changes to today’s food systems, from field to fork. Sweet potatoes must become an important part of the solution as we build on successful examples such as Universal Industry in Malawi described in previous blogs in this series.

CIP and partners are taking a three-pronged approach to transforming sweet potatoes at large scale:

  1. Broadening the technology foundation. Diversifying the utilization of sweet potatoes requires broadening the range of varieties. Continued breeding, responding to changing consumer and processing preferences as well as changing climatic conditions is critical. CIP has cut in half the time needed to develop new OFSP varieties. Similar breakthroughs are needed to intensify production systems and establish commercial storage off the grid in order to expand growing seasons and manage postharvest perishability.
  2. Facilitating innovation and knowledge exchange. Processing and packaging technologies are developing fast in the U.S. sweet potato industry, offering great opportunities for business-to-business technology and knowledge transfer to Africa. Business-led sweet potato innovation hubs in key countries could provide a platform for this exchange, supported through ongoing research on markets, service sectors and policy environment by CIP and universities. Regional programs by the African Union and bilateral US-Africa initiatives provide a framework for possible support.
  3. Assessing the development impacts. How do we know that this transformation will make a difference for poor and malnourished people? CIP is working to assess the impacts of a wide range of developments and interventions involving sweet potatoes on nutrition, health, incomes, gender equity and well-being of farming families and consumers as well as on broader agricultural, economic and social systems. Understanding these impacts is important for guiding the design of public sector support programs and maximizing the value of commercial investments for Africa’s development.

This approach requires a broad-based partnership between industry, farmer associations, governments and research partners like CIP. The experience from the Kenya and Malawi case studies and the recent forum with U.S. sweet potato industry and partners make us confident that this can be achieved. Significant business opportunities exist for commercial processing of sweetpotato in the region, serving a diversity of markets with customized products. At the same time, these investments can support broader public goods such as healthier diets, reduced malnutrition and much-needed employment opportunities for young men and women.

Fun fact

Did you know that per capita sweet potato consumption in the U.S. has increased nearly 50 percent since 2009? Greater consumer awareness of nutrition benefits and exciting new sweet potato products account for this impressive rise. The industry responds to market demand; providing nutrition in new shapes and forms as food culture changes and new markets emerge. Meanwhile, the European market is also expanding, with import and consumption doubling over the last five years. Across the world, opportunities are growing for new and exciting sweet potato products.