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Photo by: Jon Tallon

A new chapter in the story of the Irish Potato

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Photo by: Jon Tallon

The potato famine drove millions of Irish to starvation and across the Atlantic to America. Now, the American Irish can help to make the Irish potato the saviour of African farmers. Ireland and the United States will collaborate in a historic programme in Africa to make potato the great hunger-buster for small farmers. By 2020, one million potato farmers (equal to the number of Irish farmers in 1847) will be assisted through this programme to lift their communities out of hunger and poverty.

Why the potato? It is the most nutritious crop for small farmers to feed their families. Like the old farms in Ireland, African farms are typically one or two acres. The potato is the ideal crop to grow on these small farms, but their existing seed is old, farms are traditional and harvests are way below what Irish and American farmers can now reap.

An Irish charity, called Vita, is pioneering this amazingly successful food security programme, based on supplying the best seed and farming knowledge to African farmers. With this, farmers can triple their food production, freeing them of hunger and aid-reliance. Vita is also teaching them the commercial tricks of how to become wealthy by selling surplus potato to Africa's growing city populations. Some of Irelands most successful farmers are involved in training them how to grow, store and sell potatoes.

Vita, which was founded by Mother Teresa 25 years ago, set up a Potato Centre of Excellence in Ethiopia in 2013. Helped by the International Potato Centre, the Centre of Excellence has three PhD Researchers working on the project at local levels, to capture all this best practice, which will then be shared with local partners, government agencies and other development aid organisations. The initial project is targeting 100,000 Ethiopian potato farmers and will provide the prototype for a six-country Coalition, which will roll out across Eastern and Southern Africa. All of this knowledge and standards of practice will be shared with local partners, on a national scale and then further across the continent.

Irish America is at the heart of the Potato Centre of Excellence. In September Monsignor James Brady from New Jersey will travel to Ethiopia to witness the work. In November, the renowned Irish management writer Charles Handy will visit to document how lives are being transformed. The American potato and financial industries will be invited to bring their unique skills and resources to the Potato Centre of Excellence.

Ireland and the United States are taking the lead in tackling world hunger, understanding that handing out aid will not make lasting solutions but rather through sharing our best technologies, farming and business practice. Already in the past five years, the US and Irish Governments have supported development agencies to transform the livelihoods of tens of thousands of potato farmers.

Since the famine ships arrived on American shores, the Irish have helped to build America to what it is today. Now together our two countries can build a new Africa starting with the humble potato, to provide excellence, set the farmers free of famine and aid dependency, and build a more sustainable world. A happy ending to the sad story of the Irish potato!

About Vita

Established in 1979 by Fr Kevin Doherty with Mother Teresa as Founding Patron, Vita (then called the Refugee Trust) was set up to address the plight of refugees. However, Vita realized that handing out aid does not solve the inherent problems of vulnerable communities. The organization changed its focus to supplying sustainable livelihoods for these peoples, so that they could fight hunger and poverty themselves. We teach people how to look after themselves and give them the tools to do this.Our philosophy has always been to create a ripple effect with our work, so that others would take ownership of our projects, widening the impact. Vita has always been a leader in innovative solutions. First to introduce latrines into Ethiopia in 2007, now millions of families use them. We have assisted over 150,000 farmer families improve their livelihoods; We have given seed and training to 80,000 farmers; with local communities, we have planted over 2 million trees and 40,000 women in Eritrea have built their own smokeless fuel-saving stove.Vita's model of strong local partnership backed up by world-class knowledge is proving increasingly successful. Vita will now lead a new phase of collaboration between NGO's in Africa, bringing a brighter future to millions of families.

John Weakliam is CEO of Vita since 2008 and prior to that he was Vita’s Country Director in Eritrea. Prior to joining Vita John worked in a variety of roles in sales and banking in Ireland and overseas. Originally from Dublin, John is married to Smret whom he met in Eritrea and has five children. 

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