The potato has been a staple crop in Ireland for centuries, and now a charity called Vita is working to bring the Irish potato to Africa. Vita recognized the potential that potatoes can provide for food security in the developing world, but they also knew that a sustainable approach was needed to enable Africans to produce and market potatoes. For this reason, Vita established the Potato Centre of Excellence in Ethiopia in 2013.
The Potato Centre of Excellence is dedicated to developing, sharing, and scaling best practices to maximize the potential benefit that potatoes can have for rural farming communities across Africa. The initial project currently being implemented by the Centre is targeting 100,000 potato farmers in Ethiopia. This pilot will then be scaled up to a six-country coalition that will have activities in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and Kenya. In essence, the Centre is a space for collaboration and discovering best practices for improving food security through potato production in Africa.
Although potatoes are an important crop in Ireland, they have historically not been widely cultivated in Africa, and have often not been included in food security discussions. However, the potato provides high nutrition and is adaptive to many climates. It uses less water per nutritional output than many other crops, and it also provides more food per area than other crops (three to five times that of wheat or rice). Potatoes are also high in calories and essential nutrients such as complex carbohydrates, amino acids, anti-oxidants, potassium, and vitamin C. While potatoes produce a higher yield and provide more nutrition, they are also a great cash crop for small farmers because they can be stored for long periods of time until market prices are favourable. It is estimated that the potato would be a suitable crop for millions of farmers across East Africa.
The Potato Centre of Excellence is unique from traditional development models in that it has taken a long term view, planning to help new farmers cultivate the potato for the next five to ten years. The program is focused on food security and livelihood improvement, but it also places a high priority on the science and research aspect of growing the potato in Africa. The Centre is also working to improve the entire value chain from field to market, instead of focusing on one single aspect. Perhaps most importantly, it advocates for community ownership, empowerment, and collaboration as the most important aspects of the entire program.
With a focus on research into best practices, providing quality seed and training, and collaboration with local partners, Vita hopes to make the Irish potato into a successful African crop. The Potato Centre of Excellence is pioneering a program that will aim to bring better food security to smallholder farmers across East Africa, and develop a new model for tackling world hunger.