Friday, November 18, 2011

Stalking the Orange Potato I

Two or three years ago I asked my friend, Anna-Maria, who is introducing Orange Sweet Potatoes into Uganda to provide some to the community based health workers that I help to train in Mbarara. Only I hadn’t a clue what “some” consisted of. Really, to my mind “some” were tubers or sections of potatoes with the eyes, like the ones that appear in my potato bin when I have been away from home too long. What I had not understood was that Orange Sweet Potatoes begin each planting season as a seedling. To have a sustainable crop one needs to have an annual supply of seedlings. This I probably should have known as seedlings are used to plant the regular sweet potato crops in these parts and I have noticed women carrying loads of vines around during planting time. Swamps are also found in certain parts and during the dry season it might be possible to keep the seedling alive by moving them to the swamps.

Anna-Maria was generous and provided a number of seedlings, advising us that she could not support the farmers and they would need to figure out a way to keep them going to have future crops. A number of people associated with the project began to grow Orange Sweet Potatoes. The project director put in a crop on her land which is somewhat distant from her home. The potatoes were huge, the crop which survived was bountiful but the majority were consumed by a herd of her neighbour’s cows who were unfenced as they are in many parts of the country. She and her family loved the taste of the potatoes.

One trainer put a crop into her small plot. The potatoes were large and many and everyone enjoyed them especially knowing they had increased Vit A levels and were very nutritious. But her vines did not survive the drought that came after the rains, so no second crop. It didn’t seem to me that I would not find any sustainable harvesting of Orange Sweet Potatoes in our area.

Recently I began hearing whispers about volunteers who had managed to keep the Orange Sweet Potatoes going. We have one vehicle for our project so our driver knows everyone and every place. I asked him to track down anyone who still had Orange Sweet Potatoes.

When I told Anna-Maria that I had learned of a couple of our volunteers who still had crops, she was interested. We have both been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Sticky and about how ideas spread. So I went out last week to interview those whom I could find. Certainly the unplanned spread of innovations is something we all could use more information

I located with the help of our driver, Nasser, and a senior trainer, Angella, who acted as interpreter, two wonderful ladies. Juliette is one of our original community based health workers. These CBHWs were originally trained more than 6 years ago and have had regular supervision and annual refresher training. They are committed, confident, skillful and knowledgeable about child health and they are motivated and enthusiastic. Juliette is a leader in her group and was chosen to be a trainer by her peers. This past year she was chosen for the whole sub-district of Rwampara as the Model Volunteer.

Her home is immaculate with a Tippy Tap in place, chicken pen woven from papyrus, an energy efficient stove and clear pit latrine. There is a stand of matoke (cooking banana) in her front garden and in the shade of the matoke there is a nursery of Orange Sweet Potato seedlings. She insists on digging one up when I ask her how she keeps it going. She tells me how she has given seedlings to a number of farmers in this parish but none have managed to keep their own crop going. When relatives have visited and noticed the size of the potatoes and the volume produced from a small plot, they also wanted to carry some to their homes in other parishes. So from this one energetic woman has flowed a small but important stream of innovative potatoes to the surrounding area.

As we leave Juliette’s home, heading for her friend’s place close to the swamp, she offers handfuls of seedlings to Nasser and Angella, who are inspired by her description of how she has kept her Orange Sweet Potatoes going. In Stalking the Orange Potato part 2 I will tell you why I call it the Orange Potato and what else is going on in the swamp.

Photos: Juliette with OSP; Juliette's OSP nursery; Chicken Coop; Handing seedling to Guests



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