Pressures from climate change and population growth are increasing the competition for grains as food or livestock feed in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. But sweet potato, which can grow in harsh climatic conditions with minimal inputs, can provide a healthy and easily accessible solution.
Researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute, International Potato Center, and multi-partner East Africa Dairy Development project are teaming up with other public and private partners to experiment with different sweet potato varieties and feed formulations that can expand options for livestock producers.
Though sweet potato has been used successfully in livestock systems in Asia, it still raises eyebrows in Africa.
"In China, 25 to 30 percent of sweet potato crops are used for animal feed," says Ben Lukuyu, a livestock specialist who spearheads the project for the International Livestock Research Institute. But he laughs as he describes the response he typically receives from colleagues in Africa: "You're a livestock specialist. What are you doing working with sweet potato?"
East Africa has the highest per capita consumption of livestock products (e.g., dairy cattle, pig, and goats for meat and milk) in Sub-Saharan Africa. But major feed shortages occur during the dry season, and quality feed concentrates demand a price many cannot afford. Napier grass, which is used in Kenya as a primary feed for dairy farming, requires significant allocations of land and is suffering from a major disease outbreak.
In comparison, sweet potato vines offer more protein and dry matter per unit area and require less land than other commonly used livestock feeds. For example, Kenyan researchers have found that 4 kilos of vines could replace 1 kilo of dairy concentrate feed. Sweet potato roots also make good feed. And both the roots and vines are a healthy source of food for people, too.
The International Potato Center is working directly with pig and dairy farmers in Kenya and Rwanda, testing the feasibility and business case for using sweet potato vines as silage and leaf protein supplements.
On-station and farm-based experiments are testing low-cost silage-making techniques and different blends using roots, vines, and other feeds. They are also trying varieties under different cropping regimes and analyzing nutritional components under varying conditions.
COW CAFETERIA, PIG PANTRY
The program sometimes draws the nickname "cow cafeteria" or "pig pantry". Lukuyu explains the program's purpose: "We want to give farmers options for mixing feed and feeding strategies to best respond to their needs and demands."
The project builds on work developed by the International Potato Center in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, making it a prime example of the types of internationally collaborative efforts that will be examined at the upcoming 2nd Global Conference on Agricultural Research and Development (GCARD2), taking place in Uruguay from October 29 through November 1.
At the conference, global agricultural research experts will gather to determine future priority research areas and innovations that could deliver lasting food security solutions for the world's smallholder farmers, to help them better face the challenges ahead.
Over the next five years, the International Potato Center's Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa initiative seeks to directly improve the food security and livelihoods of at least 150,000 families of sub-Saharan Africa.
By putting sweet potato on their families' tables and now even in their animal's troughs, African farmers are able to have more climate-smart and affordable options for keeping everyone healthy and fed.
Valerie Gwinner is a writer for the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres.