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Now the good news.... the orange-fleshed sweet potato

By Harry Phibbs
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This morning in the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore called for more good news. Later this morning the Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech including an important piece of good news - it concerned the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

Mr Cameron said, of beating hunger:

It’s about harnessing the power of innovation to develop better seeds and more nutritious and productive crops……like the African breeder Robert Mwanga who bred the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

Regular sweet potatoes in Africa have little or no Vitamin A - an essential nutrient that prevents blindness and infant deaths. But just one scoop of orange sweet potato meets a child’s daily Vitamin A needs. And if you want to know the difference that makes – take the story of Maria Mchele a mother and farmer in Tanzania who for years struggled to grow enough even to feed her family.

When she began to farm the new orange sweet potato her life was transformed. Today she is not just providing nutritious food for her own family…….but selling it to others, educating her community and lifting herself out of poverty.

She has managed to send her children to school and used the proceeds of her farming to build a brick house for her family. And Maria is not alone. Programmes like this have helped local farmers to increase their incomes by up to 400 per cent.

But the orange-fleshed sweet potato production depends on profit not subsidy. On consumers wanting to buy it and producers finding it a viable crop. On free trade, low tax, multinational investment. On capitalism.

Mr Mwanga understood this.  He knows the orange-fleshed sweet potato has to make a profit. In 2009 he described it in the following terms:

Interviewer: Have farmer groups or individual farmers been networking to spread the new varieties?

Robert Mwanga: Yes, farmer groups have exchanged it from farmer to farmer. For example, one might trade beans and get sweet potato vines in return. Sometimes, farmers sell the vines. For example, there is a farmer who goes from one house to the next through the villages. When he started off, he was walking. Then he earned enough money to buy a motorbike. And now he has several motorbikes! He sells small quantities of vines, maybe 50 vines, for less than a dollar, which is the amount that a household can afford to buy. Each household buys a few vines, and then they multiply them, and in this way they have spread these materials. When he sells these orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, he takes a message to the buyers. As he sells the vines, he passes along the message of how good the orange sweet potato is for combating vitamin A deficiency. When he started, he was doing it alone, but now he employs ten people.

Interviewer: At this point, what are the major challenges to producing and distributing sweet potatoes in East Africa?

Robert Mwanga: The major challenge is that there are no seed companies that deal in sweet potatoes or other vegetatively-propagated materials. We need to create a system in which some farmers specialize in growing planting material, so that all year round, farmers can get sweet potato vines. Then, whoever is interested in buying sweet potato planting materials could buy disease-free seed. The quality of planting material goes down after a few years, and then the yield goes down. After two or three growing cycles, farmers are forced to abandon their variety, because they think, “Oh, this variety no longer yields.” We need to take the same kind of approach that they do in developed countries, where some producers grow only for the seed market. This will keep the yields up, and any varieties that are released will be successful for more years because the farmers will be starting with clean, disease-free seed, and they will see that their yields are climbing.

The other major challenge that sweet potato farmers face is limited or lack of markets leading to low prices or rotting of the crop when they fail to sell. Farmers need to be organized into groups to operate sweet potato farming as a business. They also need to start or to be linked to value addition or processing sweet potato enterprises that process sweet potato into different products on a commercial scale to help alleviate the market problem.

The global poverty rate has been halved in 20 years. This is due to capitalism. It has got diddly squat to do with Overseas Aid.

There was an interesting report on this in The Economist. The astonishing reduction in poverty has been achieved not through following United Nations “millennium development goals” - which have been ignored by developing countries  - but through embracing trade and enterprise to promote growth. "It is hard to argue that aid had much to do with halving poverty," says The Economist, noting incidentally that this huge reduction in poverty had been combined with an increase in inequality: 

China saw a huge increase in income inequality—but even more growth. Between 1981 and 2010 it lifted a stunning 680m people out poverty—more than the entire current population of Latin America. This cut its poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to about 10% now. China alone accounts for around three quarters of the world’s total decline in extreme poverty over the past 30 years.

Overseas Aid is pretty marginal. A lot is wasted. Some is harmful. I am sure that in the 1970s it entrenched collectivism and tyranny and thus increased poverty. Lord Bauer documented this and Dambisa Moya argues it is still the case. On the other hand there are now some Aid programmes - such as those from Adam Smith International - which seek to establish the structures for markets to succeed.

But trade is far more important than aid. That is one of the powerful moral arguments for us leaving the European Union so that we can pursue a policy of free trade with developing countries.

Against all this we have Christian Aid - who compare free trade to a tsunami. Their Chairman, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, thunders (£)  away in The Times this morning against multinationals and in favour of higher tax.

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.



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