How nutritious sweet potato is helping African farmers to recover from climate stresses

Photo credit: CIP

By Joyce Maru and Martha Awinoh

Sweet potato production and consumption are impacting millions of lives in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA), and contributing to the recovery and resilience of local food systems to climate shocks and droughts. 

African countries, particularly in the ESA region (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi) have faced drought, flood challenges and conflicts, especially in the last two years. These experiences have forced farmers to transition into more climate-resilient farming systems to adapt to their environment.

Sweet potato is an important climate-resilient food and nutrition security crop because it’s a nutritious staple food accessible to rural communities. Moreover, it is early maturing, drought tolerant, and high-yielding.

“The sweet potato programme at the International Potato Centre has worked with partners in Africa to enable over six million households to access nutritious sweet potato varieties. Over the years, we have fine-tuned our agriculture-nutrition marketing approaches and strengthened supply chains. And with the help of our partners, we have made a demonstrable difference in the lives of households in over 12 countries in Africa, including Eastern Africa countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania,” says Paul Demo, the Director, Africa, of International Potato Centre (CIP).

Impacting where it counts most

CIP has been working with partners at national and sub-national levels to reach farmers and consumers from fragile environments through humanitarian programmes.

Strategic partnerships with World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies have helped increase sustainable production and supplies of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) as a nutritious staple food for displaced and refugee populations and their neighbouring communities. These include drought-prone Arid and Semi-Arid (ASAL) counties of Northern and Eastern Kenya, regions affected by ongoing conflicts such as Karamoja, Acholi and West Nile communities in Uganda, as well as Tigray and NSSPR regions of Ethiopia.

The innovative model of sweet potato delivery in fragile and humanitarian contexts has so far reached more than two million people through household production and humanitarian markets, especially during crises.

CIP’s contribution includes strengthening seed systems, technical capacity sharing and knowledge transfer, as well as promoting utilisation of OFSP, including through home-grown school feeding programmes.

Dissemination through institutions (schools and health systems), promotion of OFSP using complementary infant feeding technologies such as the Healthy Baby Toolkit (HBT), and value chain development through processing and commercialisation, have helped to scale up in reaching the many households producing and consuming the OFSP. 

Sweet potato provides farmers with options for diversification of the dominant cereal-based cropping systems that are currently experiencing challenges relating to prolonged droughts. Farmers can now access sweet potato varieties that are well adapted to the regional climate stresses, including drought, floods, and heat. These varieties have been developed through collaborative research and innovation, and scaled up throughout Africa and globally. They are released and/or registered for release with national partners through regional varietal exchange mechanisms and protocols.

Training of local sweet potato multipliers at a farm in Tana River County in south-eastern Kenya.

Photo credit: CIP

What’s most remarkable from a development standpoint is the programme’s focus on strengthening seed systems at both the national and local levels to ensure a continuous supply of quality seed.

CIP and partners have helped millions to access the nutrition, health and economic benefits of sweet potatoes, this way helping to address the issues of food and nutrition security that have been exacerbated by climate change, Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing conflicts.

Today, orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties are well-rooted in the local farming systems and diets in many parts African countries. The benefits of the nutritious orange-fleshed sweet potato, which is rich in vitamin A and other micronutrients, have reached vulnerable households and communities through smallholder production, nutrition education and awareness creation, local markets and supply chains for fresh roots and products, commercial partnerships with private sector players and linkages with humanitarian agencies that reach millions of vulnerable families.

Capacity sharing and knowledge transfer in priority areas of the value chain have also been critical in ensuring farmers can access quality planning materials to boost production and productivity.

Policy influences and advocacy at regional, national and sub-national levels have helped ensure governments prioritise and promote OFSP production to contribute to food and nutrition security outcomes in the countries. There is increased interest and demand from humanitarian agencies and governments to understand the role of OFSP in improving diets and contributing to recovery programmes.

The achievements of CIP and partners in expanding humanitarian partnerships and transforming lives through the orange-fleshed sweet potato programme demonstrate unwavering commitment to addressing nutritional challenges and fostering sustainable agriculture. With continued support and collaboration, the programme’s positive impact can be extended to reach even more communities in need, ensuring a healthier and more prosperous future for smallholder farmers and their communities.

About International Potato Centre (CIP)

CIP is a CGIAR research centre, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. CGIAR science is dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources and ecosystem services.

CIP’s research programme in Africa focuses on potatoes and sweet potatoes to ensure that these root and tuber crops contribute to food security, nutrition, income, and climate resilience and adaptation for farming households. 

CIP operates a Regional Office for Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has representation and offices in 11 African countries.


Joyce Maru is the Global Director (a.i) of the Sweet Potato Programme at CIP. Martha Awinoh is the Senior Communication Specialist at CIP.

For more information, email [email protected]