Gerald Action built his house from sweet potatoes – but not in the way you might think. The farmer from Nsanje District in Southern Malawi says his family’s livelihood was transformed when he switched to planting improved varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

“When I adopted this style of farming, planting this crop, it made a big difference to my family,” he says. “At first, I was sleeping in a grass thatched house. Now, I have constructed a [brick] house.”

It made a big difference to my family.

Gerald Action, farmer

Gerald says he’s also been able to purchase an ox cart, two oxen, a motorcycle and a pushbike, all from the profits made from the newly adopted crop and farming technique.

Compared to the types of sweet potato Gerald used to plant, the new varieties provide higher yields, and are more resilient to drought, pests and diseases. This means that his family not only has enough to eat, but also enough to sell.

The sweet potatoes themselves are a healthy choice for his family – with enriched levels of Vitamin A, they ward off one of the world’s most common and most dangerous nutritional deficiencies, particularly for children under the age of five.

The money made from selling the sweet potatoes further contributes to his family’s wellbeing – with money to spend on a variety of food and invest in diversified crop production, the change has meant a move beyond subsistence living.

Gerald was introduced to the new varieties of sweet potato as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Malawi.

CIP Research Scientist Felistus Chipungu is part of the team working to develop improved sweet potato varieties for farmers like Gerald. She has spent more than two decades breeding varieties that mature earlier, produce greater yields, are more nutritious, are preferred by growers and consumers, and show greater resilience to changing climate conditions.

Sweet potato is one of the crops which is very resilient to effects of climate change.

Research Scientist Felistus Chipungu

Climate change has been the number one challenge faced by the community in Nsanje and other Districts of Malawi in recent years. Prolonged drought and a lack of water for irrigation have severely impacted production.

The new varieties introduced by Felistus and team have shown resilience in the face of these conditions. Assistance in constructing wells and designing irrigation systems have also helped improve yields for the community.

Gerald claims that the improved sweet potato varieties require less frequent irrigation, while still producing high yields. They require no fertilizer or other chemicals to grow, and are not labor-intensive, making them suitable for men and women. The savings in water and labor can be used to diversify crop production, bringing greater dietary variety and a higher income for households.

“Breeding for resilience and therefore making a greater contribution to human livelihoods is what makes me happy,” Felistus says.

“These improved varieties are providing solutions to the hunger problems faced by many Malawian farmers. If you go around in this community, you will find many tangible and visible impacts attributed to these varieties. As in Gerald’s case, many other families are building decent homes, buying assets, and, most importantly, paying school fees and ensuring their families have quality food.”

Gerald now sees himself as an agent of change and is doing his part to share what he has learned with others in his community.

The community is benefiting a lot from the knowledge that I have.

Gerald Action, Farmer