They know orange sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin A. They know Vitamin A is good for the eyes. They know Vitamin A is good for health, especially children and lactating mothers. But they choose to cultivate other varieties of sweet potatoes.
“We know orange sweet potato is medicine, it is like carrot. It has Vitamin A. But we cultivate saleya or kanchiputu [white sweet potato varieties] because they give higher yield,” says Regina Mlongoti, a Mulanje potato farmer.
Mlongoti admits she is aware of the demand for orange sweet potatoes as evidenced by numerous requests from potato vendors. Still, she opts for the ordinary white sweet potatoes.
Richard Mauzu, a youthful farmer who sells sweet potatoes at Chinakanaka Market, says the stems for the orange sweet potatoes are not readily available. He claims the few orange sweet potatoes that make rare appearances at Chinakanaka and other markets in Mulanje come from neighbouring Mozambique.
“Vendors love orange sweet potatoes but it is not easy to cultivate the orange varieties here. The agricultural extension advisers do not reach out to us with advice that can help us to harvest more,” he says.
The lure of planting sweet orange potatoes for food processing is not as attractive to the farmers because of low prices that have befallen other reliable crops in Mulanje and other parts of the country.
The prices of pigeon peas and maize, for instance, have made farmers not to believe promises for better orange sweet potato markets. How can they believe that they will earn more in orange sweet potatoes when they have seen the price of a 90-kilogramme bag of sweet potatoes fall from K10 000 last year to K5 000 this year?
Pigeon peas have further entrenched the lack of trust on any promises of Canaan when they consider that a kilogramme of the legume which hit K500 two years ago is only fetching K100 this year.
Despite all this bitterness, International Potato Centre (CIP) insists there is a market for the orange sweet potatoes which can benefit farmers.
Obed Mwenye from the CIP department of research says the six varieties which they are promoting are high yielding.
Stems of the varieties, which include, Kadyaubwelere, Chipika, Zondeni, Mathuthu and Kaphulira are being sold by farmers who have been trained to multiply the stems.
Perhaps these stem producers will reach out to Mauzu and other farmers who say they are ready to cultivate orange sweet potatoes if the stems are available.
“We buy the stems [for the ordinary sweet potatoes] from local nurseries and markets where orange sweet potatoes are not easily found,” he says.
A farmer who produces orange sweet potato stems says he sells a bundle of 100 stems at K515.
Advocates of orange sweet potato farming say the current demand is expected to generate more revenue for famers as the stems, which are required for planting, are big business.
As for the potatoes, there is a ready market at Universal Industries Limited in Blantyre where a production line of Madyo orange sweet potato crisp and biscuits has been opened, ready to grind the sweet potatoes into various food products.
Universal Industries Limited group food technologist Jean Pankuku says farmers should organise themselves into groups and the company is ready to haul their produce from designated places.
Apart from orange sweet potato crisp and biscuits, sweet potatoes are being ground into flour which is used for baking doughnuts.
CIP research technician Tionge Chadzala has a collection of orange sweet potato food products that include porridge, fruit juice and doughnuts. These are being processed by local agro-processors.
Some of the products, which are called whole meals, are made with combinations of either groundnut flour, pumpkin leaves or soya.
She praises the potato flour as an alternative to wheat flour which is mostly imported.
The view is shared by Pankuku who says Malawi stands to benefit if use of orange sweet potato flour is popularised in mandasi and doughnut baking.
“We use wheat flour which is mostly imported. If we use locally-made flour from orange sweet potatoes, Malawi will save in foreign exchange,” she says.
The question still lingers, why is it that the orange sweet potato yields more in neighbouring Mozambique when the climatic conditions are almost similar?
Mary Justin, another farmer encountered at Chinakanaka Market, blames it on lack of market information and extension services. Justin was surprised when she was told of a ready market for orange sweet potatoes.
“Nobody tells us about Universal [Industries Limited] buying sweet potatoes to make biscuits,” she says.
Justin says she will only venture into orange sweet potato farming on one condition: “If the prices are good.”
She further says there are no agricultural extension workers to guide them on the new path.
“Kulibe alangizi otilondolera, [there are no extension workers to guide us],” she says.
Despite lack of knowledge, Mulanje assistant district agricultural development officer James Lichapa sees a brighter future for Mulanje farmers and beyond.
He says his office is encouraging farmers to plant other crops apart from maize, especially now that Malawi has been hit by fall armyworms.
He anticipates success because of the support in extension services provided by CIP and market access provided by Universal Industries Limited.
And the success will only be meaningful once the sweetness extracted from the orange sweet potato drips on the tongues of Malawians who are yet to consider the potato as a nutritious and economically viable crop.
“Through the work we do with Universal Industries Limited, farmers will grow potatoes for profit and health,” says United States Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future team leader Fenton Sands. n