Despite its health, economic and nutritional benefits, Orange-Fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP) is yet to be widely cultivated in farms.
OFSP is a new variety of potato rich in Vitamin A, a critical vitamin that is deficient in most diets in sub-Saharan Africa and remains a serious public health issue in Nigeria.
Aside its nutritional advantages, it improves eye sight and is good for diabetics. It is economical; its leaves can be used for producing drinks, and can also be used in bread production, to lessen reliance on wheat.
One distinct feature of the crop is that it can be eaten raw once peeled and tastes exactly like a carrot.
The Project Manager of the scheme, Dr. Erna Abidin said results from a number of researches reveal that one small-to-medium boiled root (approximately 125g or 1⁄2 to 1 cup) of most OFSP varieties can supply the recommended daily amount of Vitamin A for young children and non-breastfeeding women.
According to him, OFSP roots have a nutritional advantage over white- or cream-fleshed sweet potato roots because they have beta-carotene, and therefore Vitamin A content is higher, as evidenced by the deep orange color of the flesh.
“Since cultivating OFSP on just 500 square meters can supply the needs of a family, farmers can still grow other crops to meet their diversified food needs at their household level,” he said.
Developed by the International Potato Centre (abbreviated by its Spanish acronym (CIP) and partners in 2014, it was introduced to Nigeria in 2015, through a three-year project in Osun and Kwara States, pioneered by CIP, which ended in 2017.
In Osun, the project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, entails the inclusion of the crop in school meals, as part of efforts to improve children’s nutrition. It also focused on the inclusion of 40 per cent OFSP puree (steamed OFSP) in wheat bread.
National Coordinator, Sweetpotato Programme and senior agronomist at CIP, Dr. Jude Njoku revealed that two OFSP varieties were introduced into the country, but in Osun State, Mothers’ delight variety is cultivated. The variety is believed to be very high in beta-carotene. Its dry matter is low, sweet and not too hard.
But despite its benefits and as alternative to other root crops, its cultivation is still limited to few states, a development that has raised concerns among advocates.
As at last count, aside Osun and Kwara States, Abia State joined the train in 2018. The new entrants are Jigawa and Yobe, through the Building Nutritious Food Baskets project (2016- 2019) and the Working to Improve Nutrition in Northern Nigeria (WINNN).
WINNN involves OFSP and three other selected vegetables to address malnutrition in Northern Nigeria, as well as create income for rural households, especially vulnerable women.
Despite the closeness of other Southwest states to Osun, none has been able to key into the opportunity of cultivating this crop, which holds many promises.
One of the factors responsible for this, according to farmers is the challenge of getting access to quality planting materials.
The Guardian learnt that though farmers working closely with the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Abia State, have access to improved varieties of OFSP vines, the challenge is that the OFSP planting materials are produced by a few smallholder farmers who have been trained on vine multiplication (also known as decentralised vine multipliers – DVMs), who sell the vines to their neighbours for root production.
Another factor, according to reports is the challenge of acceptance. This was confirmed by the Director/States Operations Officer, Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Office (O-MEALS), Oluwabunmi Ayoola, who disclosed that when the OFSP was first introduced to the schools’ menu as part of the School Feeding Programme, “it was not really taken with relish, but with time, the pupils got used to it and its scope was expanded.”
Aside its value to scale up the school feeding programme with nutritional value at a very low cost, it was learnt that bakery offer opportunities for OFSP farmers; also the local markets, which serve as an important alternative for mopping up excess production.
One of the DVM’s in Osogbo, Mr. Ademola Adepoju said from his 1.5-hectare farm in Ajebamidele village, he made N1.6m from the sale of OFSP vines, which he planted in January 2017.
“I have harvested my vines twice; in March and May. For root production, the Mothers Delight OFSP variety matures in only two and a half months while the local sweet potato varieties take up to five months.”
According to a Monitoring and Evaluation specialist working for CIP on the project, Souleimane Adekambi, in 2016 alone, six DVMs sold 12, 647 bundles of OFSP vine cuttings to 13 groups of storage root producers (284 farmers; 30% women). During the dry season of 2016, they grew 26.6 hectares of OFSP in 12 Local Government Areas and sold 79.8 tons of OFSP roots to 17 schools.
A farmer in Ogun State, Olumide Iyanda, who spoke glowingly about the benefits of the crop, enjoined state governments to encourage cultivation of what he described as ‘wonder crop’ to tap the nutrition benefits and also boost their revenue sources.
“I am encouraging states that are part of the school feeding programme to introduce the new potato to save cost, address Vitamin A deficiency, and encourage farmers to cultivate it.”
The CIP has promised that it will join hands with its partners to continue working on OFSP, with the hope to scale up its many benefits to both the rural and urban communities in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.