From the lab to the masses: Maria Andrade bred varieties of biofortified sweet potatoes which are now widely used all over the continent. She sets her hope on the transformation of African agriculture.

Dr. Andrade, you are wearing an orange dress today. Are you marketing sweet potatoes?

Maria Andrade: Of course, we are on a mission every day, and I advocate for sweet potatoes by displaying their orange colour. Growing these vegetables is a powerful tool against hunger. For that reason, I wear orange clothes so often that, when I don’t, people keep asking me what’s wrong with me today.

This vegetable made you famous. In 2016, you won the World Food Prize for developing the single most successful example of micronutrient and vitamin biofortification – the orange-fleshed sweet potato. As an agronomist, why did you choose to work on these vegetables?

When I was a child, my father had a small farm on Cape Verde where we planted some sweet potatoes, as they are very resilient to drought. Hence, when I came home after my Master’s studies in the USA to start a vegetable planting programme, my supervisor wanted me to work on maize. I looked around the island and said, ’This is a desert; you won’t get much out of growing maize.’ Then they suggested working with tomatoes – but how do you feed people with tomatoes? Instead, I had the idea to breed sweet potatoes because they are rich in complex carbohydrates and fill the stomach.

What did you find out?

I immediately recognized that they grow fast and that they are easy to crop; I had found my PhD-project. I was deeply influenced by American culture, too: In the US, they do a lot with sweet potatoes; they even have festivals. In Africa, sweet potatoes were not as prominent.

What did the people say when you arrived with your sweet potatoes?

I started a project in Mozambique in 2001. Mothers and children were malnourished; they lacked vitamins and the UN distributed pills against it. The local residents were not familiar with the orange sweet potato, a vegetable containing a large amount of vitamin A. We began with a social market strategy in order to convince people of the benefits of the sweet potato. We dressed in orange colours, came up with slogans and theatre plays – even my car was orange. Farmers are always reluctant when it comes to introducing new crops, but we succeeded in introducing sweet potatoes in the country and saved many lives. We had biofortified our bred crop: It was now more drought-tolerant and had more vitamins than traditional ones.

In other cases, ideas never leave the labs. Why is it difficult to realize them?

Sweet potatoes are considered to be poor vegetables. In Mozambique, people usually hid the fact that they ate sweet potatoes because it carried the stigma of being poor. As a scientist, I had sorted out my newly bred crop but it was much more difficult to convince others to use it. When I arrived in Mozambique, nobody talked about sweet potatoes. Today, it is considered the main staple food.

Background: Biofortification
Biofortification is the idea of breeding crops to increase their nutritional value. This can be done either through conventional selective breeding, or through genetic engineering. Biofortification differs from ordinary fortification because it focuses on making plant foods more nutritious as the plants are growing, rather than having nutrients added to the foods when they are being processed.

Why did you join AGRA?

I joined AGRA in 2011 because I believe in the agricultural transformation in Africa. AGRA is an African organization led by Africans. There is a lot involved in this transformation.

Why is there a need for transformation?

Agriculture in Africa is mostly done by smallholder farmers, but their productivity is very low. To increase yield, you need good seeds, which can only be derived from research. When you look at the green revolutions that took place in India and in Far East Asia, you will discover that they were driven by new fertilizers, irrigation and tractors. These items are missing in Africa. Therefore, AGRA steps in, looks at the seed, at the post-harvest loss, at the use of fertilizer and means of financing. We have to improve our value chain in order to become self-sufficient on our continent. Isn’t it a shame that we must import so much food from outside? We are the continent with the most arable land and with huge masses of unemployed youth.

You have the market, the land, the youth. What is missing?

Our farmers are no businessmen. If this mentality changes, agribusiness, provided by smallholders, would create jobs.

What is the problem with traditional agriculture?

Take climate change, for example. Due to scarcer rainfalls, the farmers need seeds that can adapt to the new conditions. Accordingly, this requires a broader approach: the cooperation of farmers who have access to the fruits of research. All this will be part of the revolution to feed a growing population. We don’t have another planet. Therefore, we need to think and change.

This is not an exclusive challenge for Africa …

… no, the other continents can also learn from us. Take the production of meat in South America, the US or in Europe, for example: too much land has been deforested only for that quite expensive purpose. With the water required to produce one kilogram of meat, you can produce 300 kilograms of sweet potatoes.

AGRA also focuses on the use of chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Do you see a problem with that?

Hybrid seeds did not cause any problems- they only increased the productivity. Chemical fertilizer was a key driver for the green revolutions in India and Far East Asia. Africa is the continent with the lowest use of fertilizers. It would take a long time for it to cause any major ecological concerns. That could then be dealt with at a later stage.

When a farmer decides to use hybrid seeds, he must buy them from season to season. Is that forming a threat of financial dependence that did not exist before?

The farmer will gain more benefits from the new seeds. If a farmer can’t afford to buy them, he can continue with his own old seeds.

AGRA is promoting to create laws regulating seeds. Is there a risk of excluding farmers from markets when they don’t work within the new parameters?

AGRA is not acting alone, but in cooperation with the governments, which means that nothing will take place overnight. Plus, the system is not that rigid. When local seeds are of a good quality, there will be never a problem with selling them. Farmers are smart: they adapt quickly when it helps them. They want to survive. Now, we will help them to become businessmen.

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