We were chatting about potatoes in East Africa, as you do.
“They call them Irish,” said Shane, who was manning the reception desk in Dublin’s Irish Aid Voluteering & Information Centre. I had called in because the centre, in conjunction with Irish aid charity Vita, had been hosting a potato-themed photographic exhibition and related events around last month’s World Food Day.
Shane had spent a good deal of time in various East African countries where – most likely due to the presence of Irish missionaries and aid workers down through the years – “Irish” had become a synonym for potatoes (in much the same way that, when it arrived in Ireland first, the potato was often referred to as An Spáinneach – meaning the Spaniard – as it was they who had introduced the tuber to Europe). And while the potato is a largely non-traditional African crop, the vegetable which kept Irish populations fed for centuries – except, famously, when it didn’t, of course – is one which, it turns out, has a lot to offer countries in the African region.
The potato is more efficient, more nutritious, and more profitable than any other staple crop… and is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labor abundant – conditions that characterize much of the developing world.
That was what Hubert Zandstra, then Director General of CIP, the Peru-based International Potato Centre, had to say in the foreword to James Lang’s 2001 book, Notes of a Potato Watcher. He went on to talk about a plant’s harvest index – the ratio of weight of usable food to weight of the entire plant. For potatoes, this is 75%-85%, which he described as an “astounding figure” compared to other crops. Not only is the potato’s nutritional return per unit area higher than that of any other major staple crop, its water requirements are lower, while their bulkiness – which makes them less suited to trading on international markets and thus less vulnerable to price volatility compared to cereals like maize, rice and wheat – means that they have good potential as a cash crop.
Though Mr. Zandstra didn’t specifically invoke the term food security – which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined in 1996 as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” – he was bullish about the potato’s huge potential in addressing that particular problem in the developing world. Some 12 years after that foreword was written, it is precisely those characteristics which have lead Irish-based organisation Vita – which aims to tackle food insecurity through community-led agriculture projects in Ethiopia and Eritrea – to put the potato front and centre in their work, and to put the legendary Irish association with the potato – and years of practical potato experience – to very good use.
According to Thomas Caffrey Osvald, Programme and Communications Officer with Vita, their work with potatoes started in 2008 as part of an Irish Aid project addressing food security issues in Chencha in Ethiopia. That eventually led to the establishment of the Potato Centre of Excellence in 2012, based in Ethiopia’s Gama Gofa Zone, an administrative region of about 2 million people in the south of the country. The centre represents a collaboration amongst partners from science, business and development sectors – these include Vita, CIP, Teagasc, the Irish Potato Federation as well as other European and Ethiopian administrative and research partners. The Centre has also been the springboard for the Irish Potato Coalition – not, as you might think, some dodgy political party – but an initiative involving Irish and international NGOs, like Concern, working together with CIP and other science and business partners and aimed at sharing knowledge across 6 countries – Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya – who together account for some 4 million potato farmers.
To maximise the benefit that potatoes can provide to rural communities, through various means, including enhanced seed quality, better farm practices, improved storage and the development of commercially sustainable community cooperatives.
Since 2008, Vita have worked with around 10,000 farmers directly in Ethiopia and aim – funding levels permitting – to work with up to 60,000 over the next 5 years, which, substantial though it is, is still a very small percentage in a country which currently has about 1 million potato farmers. And if you have trouble imagining Ethiopia as a land planted with green fields of spuds, Thomas Caffrey Osvald sets things straight:
Ethiopia has that hangover from Live Aid – we see it as dry and dusty, but it’s a very diverse country and in the highlands [where Vita works] it can be lush as anything and green, green, green.
While crops like barley are more traditional, Vita estimate that Ethiopia may, in fact, have the highest potential for potato production of any country in Africa, with 70% of its 13.5m hectares of arable land suitable to potato cultivation. Of these, only an estimated 160,000 ha. are now planted annually, mainly on small, half hectare farms in the central highlands where the potato grows well, though the traditional varieties and farming practices used do not exploit yield potential – with yields of 8 tonnes / ha. typical – and currently less than 3% of Ethiopian farmers have access to improved or uncontaminated seed.
Part of the challenge for Vita and its partners, therefore, is to develop a community based system that can become self-sustaining through producing its own quality approved seed. This process includes inputs from scientific partners on defining appropriate potato varieties, while development specialists manage the social aspect of farmer engagement and those from a business background work with cooperatives on viable commercial practices. Though at an early stage, this work has succeeded in establishing seed producing cooperatives, providing them with seed and with farm and communal seed storage. For those farmers using the improved seed, they have seen a three fold increase in productivity which, along with better storage, has greatly enhanced their ability to meet their own food needs and to improve their incomes by selling any surplus.
Not that it’s all rosy in the garden – or the highlands, for that matter.
Though improved potato varieties perform better and provide greater disease resistance, blight, the arch tuber enemy, is always and ever a worry where potatoes are concerned. Setbacks have also been experienced due to an endemic potato wilt disease in Vita’s pilot area. Losses, whether due to blight or other factors, are not, however, the out and out disaster that our inherited Famine memories might lead us to imagine. The Irish, of all people, know the perils of potato over-dependence and the farmers with whom Vita work continue to grow other crops and will often maintain a kitchen garden too, while livestock farming, especially of cattle, is also very important, both economically and culturally. The potato does not – and should not – supplant the local farming ecosystem, but, rather, acts to supplement it; and it may well be in time that the denizens of East Africa will come to think of it, not as Irish, but as their own.