Rwanda has announced plans to boost sweet potato production as a sustainable alternative to wheat flour in a move to reduce wheat imports.
The country is seeking to increase sweet potato production from eight to 30 tonnes per hectare using six new varieties to achieve the target, Jean Ndirigwe, a sweet potato breeder at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Board (RAB), said.
It comes as the government aims to promote food security, reduce dependency on imported wheat, and support local farmers in diversifying their crops.
Rwanda has started to look for alternative sources of wheat imports following hefty trade sanctions on its major supplier, Russia.
Sweet potatoes, which are rich in nutrients and can be easily cultivated, have long been a staple crop for Rwandan farmers. However, they have primarily been consumed as a food item rather than utilised as a substitute for wheat flour in baking and other culinary applications.
Prior to the sanctions, Rwanda heavily depended on Russia for wheat imports, with at least 64 percent of the country’s wheat coming from Russia. However, Russia is now facing export and import sanctions as a consequence of its military incursion into Ukraine, which has disrupted this supply.
The data indicate that in 2019, Russia was Rwanda’s top wheat import partner, where more than 73,324 metric tonnes worth $17.5 million (approx. Rwf21 billion) were imported, while in 2020, the United Kingdom came first with 67,145 tonnes of wheat for $16.1 million (approx. Rwf19 billion), followed by Russia with over 60,855 tonnes for $15.2 million (approx. Rwf18 billion).
“We have sweet potato varieties that can increase production. Sweet potatoes can replace wheat in baking factories and cut wheat imports,” he said.
Currently, Ndirigwe said, 99 per cent of farmers are still using traditional seeds.
“We have to scale up high-yielding varieties among farmers by increasing seed multipliers,” he said.
With only 15 percent of sweet potato farmers able to invest their own money in buying new varieties of sweet potato seeds, agricultural researchers are set to establish demonstration plots that will stimulate farmers’ demand.
Six new sweet potato varieties that were recently introduced are expected to increase yields.
However, Ndirigwe said that sweet potato seed multipliers are still few.
“The sweet potato multipliers decreased from 95 to 47 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The number should increase and also be given arable wetlands for multiplication,” he said.
Jan Low, a principal scientist with the International Potato Center (CIP), said that if Rwanda invests in increasing sweet potato yields, it could replace wheat at between 30 per cent and 60 per cent in baking factories.
“Such investment can reduce government spending on wheat imports,” she said.
Data from the Ministry of Trade and Industry show that in 2020, Rwanda spent over $44 million (approx. Rwf53 billion) on importing more than 177,740 tonnes of wheat, representing an increase of over 10 per cent compared to more than $40.8 million (approx. Rwf48 billion) spent the previous year.
Telesphore Ndabamenye, the Director General of Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), said that high-yielding sweet potato varieties to replace wheat in baking are also rich in Vitamin A.
“There are over six varieties we want to scale up since they provide high productivity and are also resistant to diseases. We have to increase seed multipliers. Sweet potatoes are good raw materials needed in baking and they could help cut wheat imports. About 80 per cent of what is needed in baking can come from sweet potatoes,” he said.
Processing sweet potatoes into flour has proven to be one of the means to diversify baking products, prevent post-harvest losses, and provide farmers with a ready market for their produce.
Sweet potatoes, especially the orange variety, are rich in energy, vitamins, calcium, and iron among other nutrients which are needed for improving nutrition.
However, Jeanne d’Arc Uwemeyimana, a sweet potato farmer and seed multiplier, said that sweet potato vines are still expensive.
“I am selling one kilogramme of sweet potato vines at Rwf500. This is derailing efforts to increase production,” she said.
With the orange-fleshed sweet potato vines, she has increased output from 10 tonnes to between 20 and 30 tonnes per hectare.