Forest fires during a record-breaking warm winter in Europe, Arctic cold in the US and melting glaciers are clear signals that climate change is impacting all of us but it is in Africa where such extreme weather is having the most significant impact.

More intense conditions are hitting the continent harder than anywhere else on the planet, bringing with it severe droughts, heatwaves, and at times, flooding.

This is only likely to get worse in the years ahead, posing a threat to food production and security at a time when hunger and malnutrition continue to blight many African communities.

Experiencing it first-hand

My late husband Kofi Annan and I saw first-hand the potential that sweet potato – a fast-growing crop rich in vitamins and micronutrients – has in improving diets, fighting malnutrition and increasing the incomes of smallholders farmers in Ghana. It was one of the inspiring stories we highlighted as part of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Combatting Hunger programme.

Now, the ability of this simple staple food crop to support climate adaptation is becoming increasingly important.

And I believe we must fully exploit the potential of Africa’s staple crops for greater climate resilience, in particular the sweet potato and its orange-fleshed varieties rich in vitamin A.

Promising Results

In countries like Ghana, sweet potato is the fourth most important root crop after cassava, yam, and taro. Yet it is the staple root that offers the quickest nutritional returns in the face of increasingly challenging weather conditions. Instead of waiting up to a year for yam or cassava to mature, sweet potato – with all its nutritional benefits – is ripe and ready in as little as three months.

Making the most of these qualities to ensure good harvests, rising incomes and nutritious food in ever hotter and dryer environments is not easy, but efforts by the International Potato Center (CIP) and partners have shown promising initial results.

Climate-smart practices

For example, CIP scientists have developed climate-smart sweet potato farming practices, which protect valuable sweet potato roots and planting material in drought conditions so that farmers continue to have vines for early planting when other resources are limited.

One method, known as “Triple S”, involves storing small sweet potato roots in dry sand after harvest and then planting out the sprouted roots two months before the rainy season to produce more seed vines for early planting and harvests.

Combined with the use of good agricultural practices, this method can boost yields and help provide food during periods when food stocks are low and other crops have not yet been harvested.

Profound benefits

The valuable qualities of sweet potato, from high levels of vitamin A to its short harvest time, can be further enhanced through breeding to produce more drought-tolerant varieties that compensate for tougher climatic conditions.

This can have profound benefits for household food and nutrition security at a time when an estimated 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk of blindness from vitamin A deficiency. Not only then does sweet potato offer a resilient, consistent source of food in harsher climates, it is also highly nutritious, providing an incredible value for health in an otherwise challenging environment.

Just 125 grams of orange-fleshed sweet potato provides the daily intake of vitamin A needed to avoid illness, blindness and stunting, while its edible leaves are a rich source of lutein, essential for preventing sight degeneration.

Finally, harnessing the versatility of sweet potato to meet consumer demand for a whole range of different products – from breads and cakes to chips and biscuits – can also generate an additional source of income for millions of smallholder farmers and create employment opportunities for young entrepreneurs.

Just 125 grams of orange-fleshed sweet potato provides the daily intake of vitamin A needed to avoid illness, blindness and stunting, while its edible leaves are a rich source of lutein, essential for preventing sight degeneration. 

Steamed and mashed orange-fleshed sweet potato can replace up to 60 per cent of wheat flour in various baked products, and given that most African governments import the majority of their wheat flour, the benefits of an orange-fleshed sweet potato flour substitute should clearly resonate with policy makers.

Africa Climate Week

As Africa Climate Week lays out the continent’s priorities ahead of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit and the UN Climate Conference, decision-makers and donors should be paying close attention to the impact of rising temperatures on hunger, poverty and equality.

The challenges will become even more difficult as climate change intensifies, but some of the most effective solutions for addressing food and nutrition security may lie in simple staples.

To this end, I hope decision-makers recognise the need for more investment dedicated to research into breeding the most nutritional and resilient varieties of sweet potato, as well as developing initiatives that get them into the hands of farmers and families.

Supportive policies, such as nutrition counselling and vouchers for pregnant women, sweet potato included on school lunch menus or reduced barriers to markets for sweet potato products, can help generate a consumer demand for these valuable crops. Africa’s ability to feed herself in a warmer world could depend on it.

This article was originally written by Nane Annan and published in the Telegraph.

Nane Annan is a board member on the Kofi Annan Foundation