Evolution and Diversification of East African Sweet Potato to Enhance Food Security

Prof. Lars Chatrou (right) and Samuel Kagame (left) give a lecture on the origin, characteristics and future of the sweet potato

Sweet potato plays an important role in food security in the world, especially in the dry areas of Eastern Africa. However, as a result of inadequate data on the crop in the region, it has for the most part been disregarded, until very recently, when researchers started studying the plant species in depth.

Giving a lecture to 4th year students of Botany on Tuesday, May 31, 2022 at the Sino-Africa Joint Research Centre (SAJOREC), Prof. Lars Chatrou of Ghent University, addressed the origin, characteristics and future of the Ipomoea species of the sweet potato.

With over 800 species of the Ipomoea worldwide, Kenya boasts 148 of them, with over 50 being native to the country. The diversity of the crop in Africa, however, is lower compared to other areas like South America mainly due to the rainforests.

Going by different names worldwide such as morning glory, bindweed, moonflower and kangkong, just to mention a few, the Ipomoea species has gained popularity quickly in the past three years because of its medicinal properties. Among other uses, the species has been used as a food crop, ornament for decorating, biofuel, raw material in baking and for fencing due to its invasiveness.

In East Africa, the Ipomoea research is spearheaded by Mr. Samuel Paul Kagame in collaboration with Prof. Lars Chatrou (Ghent University), Prof. Anne Muigai (JKUAT), and Dr. Ana Rita Simoes (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), who together with his team, have been collecting different samples of the crop from dry areas of Kenya including Machakos and Kitui for rigorous examination and testing.

Devox Otieno poses a question during the lecture

According to Mr. Kagame, an alumnus of JKUAT and currently a PhD student at Ghent University, they will classify the crops into suitable taxonomic units. The main focus of the study is the root which is the prime source of food in the crop.

“Classifying the plant is important for studying its evolution and how it can be diversified with the aim of curbing food insecurity in the world. This research comes at a crucial time when food shortage is becoming a big problem as a result of famine especially in Eastern Africa,” said Mr. Kagame.

He further said the study will hopefully provide new knowledge that will enable scientists to conserve indigenous sweet potato species as well as come up with new varieties in order to elevate food security and nutrition.

His supervisor, Prof. Chatrou said after collecting the samples, they will study the genes to establish which plant varieties are most closely related.

“It is with this information that we can be able to cross-breed different sweet potato varieties in order to come up with a crop that will have maximum yield, take the shortest time possible to grow and be drought resistant,” explained Prof. Chatrou.

However, he cautioned that they are still a long way from cross breeding, as they need a lot more information on the crop to do that efficiently

The research on sweet potato wild relatives is a joint research between Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom and Ghent University, Belgium. On May 20, 2022, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Victoria Wambui Ngumi signed the tripartite agreement committing JKUAT to collaborative research and academic exchange with the other two universities.

Present during the workshop was, Dean, School of Biological Sciences, Dr. Peter N. Mwangi, Chairperson Department of Botany, Dr. Moses Gichua, Dr. Elizabeth Kamande, Prof. Vivienne Matiru, Dr. Francis Ndwiga and Dr. Purity Kaaria Kithinji, all from the Department of Botany.

Students and lecturers of Botany follow keenly during the presentation.

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