Efforts to conserve sweetpotato

National Agricultural Research Institute (Nari), is undertaking a project that focuses on farm-based sweetpotato conservation and utilisation strategies in trial nurseries among communities that are vulnerable to negative climatic stresses such as drought and frost.

SWEET potato is one of the most important staple crops in Papua New Guinea for nutritional, economic and socio-cultural benefits for many years.
While there is considerable spread diversity of varieties throughout the country, there have been concerns about how to best sustain these resources against threats of commercial farming and climate change impacts.

Selected farmers from PNG doing hands-on practice on sweet potato vines collection at a farm in Australia recently.

To promote conservation of local sweetpotato varieties (cultivars), the National Agricultural Research Institute (Nari), is undertaking a project with a grant from the benefit-sharing fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources that is managed under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organisation over the next four years.
The project will focus on farm-based sweetpotato conservation and utilisation strategies in trial nurseries among communities that are vulnerable to negative climatic stresses like drought and frost.
Selected communities from Central, Morobe, Madang and Eastern Highlands have been identified to participate.
The main outcomes targeted by the project include supporting the introduction of new varieties to diversify local species; participatory cross-breeding activities, and the documentation of new selected varieties of sweet potato in the participating communities.
This especially important as it would help to increase familiarity with and an appreciation of the value of farming a wide range of sweetpotato varieties.
That also offers participating communities the possibility of adding value to their sweetpotao farming systems and production capacity.
The ultimate benefit to draw from this engagement will be building of resilience in the social, nutritional and economic security of over 600 famers in target communities.
It is also hoped that the project would help to improve technical capacity for the Institute as a research agency and its staff who are involved.
Improvements maybe realised in the form of advancements in the facilities.
Examples of this may include upgrading of sweetpotato collection nurseries at selected Nari research centres.
That may range from physical overhauling of the designs through to the actual processes of managing the outdoor and indoor plots.
Research centre gene pool nurseries may have to reorient their specialties to hold certain varieties (cultivars) of sweetpotato.
Upgraded facilities and resources would help scientists to undertake processes in the initial phase of the project.
These include the selection and multiplication of preferred cultivars sourced from our own collections as well as others both within and outside of the country.
This creates the possibility of staff to exchange ideas with colleagues and partners that increase their knowledge and skills about new approaches like participatory plant breeding and participatory variety selection.
A provision is also exists for a staff to undertake a postgraduate degree scholarship as part of project.
In addition, up to 20 researchers, scholars and extension workers stand to participate and be up-skilled through the project.
Building of partnerships and collaborations also holds great potential to benefit from beyond the life of the project.
This is because there is opportunity for cross-sector engagements between a wide range of stakeholders both domestic and abroad.
This is especially significant because technologies generated from the project would be able to be disseminated to drive greater visibility through the established network.
The main stakeholders to be involved apart from us include the provincial and district Department of Agriculture and Livestock offices; PNG University of Technology; local non-governmental organisations such as the PNG Women in Agriculture Development Foundation; and the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees in Fiji.

Existing collections of sweet potato varieties at Nari’s Mamose research centre in Lae, Morobe.

Furthermore, success of the project also hinges on fostering enhanced inclusivity and participation of the target communities and their citizens.
An initial needs and vulnerability assessment survey is planned to be undertaken to establish data and information to implement the project effectively.
This would enable the project to identify challenges facing the community and how the leadership structure and network of other community-based agencies such as schools, churches and other community-based organisation could be involved.
Most importantly, there is special intention to recognise and engage the womenfolk as key custodians of knowledge and skills of local farming practices.
The women and girls are set to enjoy up to 50 per cent of participation in capacity building activities.
Youths would also be given greater opportunities to get involved.
This is in recognition of their status as the group that makes up the most important and readily available pool of workforce in most rural communities around the country.
Their participation would be arranged through established Nari farmer engagement programmes like the family farm team.
Potentially, some 40-60 students would also be engaged through their school programmes such as the making a living course.
Successful undertaking of the project should ultimately improve the capacity of local farming communities.
It is anticipated that around 170 to 250 farming households in target communities would be able to continue to conserve, generate and utilize new varieties of sweet potato to, long after the project has lapsed.

  • Aaron Inamara is the information and Communications officer with Nari.

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