The hills of Chencha in southern Ethiopia, over 3,700m above sea level, are not a place where you might expect the Irish potato to be thriving underground. But in a country where most farmers work on small plots, providing just enough to feed themselves and their family, the humble Irish spud is proving to be a life-saving crop.
There are about 1,000,000 potato farmers in Ethiopia but historically. However, the seed that has been available to farmers is poor quality and therefore production is poor. Farming practices are traditional, which means harvests are far below what Irish potato farmers reap. There is also little focus on tackling diseases such as blight
However, the Irish potato and Irish agricultural expertise are now being used to change all of this, through a highly innovative programme.
Ireland exports almost 90% of food produced and that is thanks to the massive modernisation programme led by the Irish Government. Ireland has one state body called Teagasc under the Department of Agriculture, which supports farmers with research, advisory services and training. Teagasc has acquired international renown for its innovation and support to farmers. Teagasc itself has been greatly supported by American Universities and Science bodies over the past thirty years. Now in turn Teagasc wants to share this know-how with African partners. Working with Irish development agency Vita and the Potato Centre of Excellence in Ethiopia is making that ambition a reality.
In 2012 Teagasc partnered with Vita and Wageninen in Holland to set up a three PhD research program in Southern Ethiopia. Three Ethiopian Masters Degree students have spent the last two years living with potato farmers to introduce new ways of growing and storing potato and to observe how farmers adopt these new ways. Now the students are compiling their research findings for PhD publication. Such findings
As the Head of Ireland's potato breeding programme in Teagasc Denis Griffen said; "We are promoting the use of potato as a hunger-busting crop in developing countries. In light of the current global population growth, there will be increased demand for potato in the future. However, potato is susceptible to a large range of diseases and improved resistance. Accordingly, there is need for ongoing research and dissemination of new knowledge to farmers. The three PhD students are contributing to meeting this need in Ethiopia.”
Teagasc is not only working on potato but also with dairy farmers in Eritrea, again with Vita. Teagasc will sign an agreement with the Irish Government's international aid agency, Irish Aid, to bring its expertise to different agriculture areas in Africa and really make a difference.
The Director of Teagasc, Professor Gerry Boyle, shows unstinting commitment to sharing Teagasc know-how. "Teagasc and Ireland have had unique success and we are passionate about enabling Africa to have similar success and not to have to wait for generations". Teagasc expertise, alongside that of the scientists from the World Potato Centre based in Peru, makes Vita's potato programme a winner.
Farmers are getting THREE times more potato from their small one acre fields, enough to eat and sell the extra. There are also risks in growing potato as Ireland learned so painfully when blight destroyed all the crops in the country causing millions to perish in the Great Famine. Teagasc are presently bringing expertise to help Vita fight an outbreak of bacterial wilt, which threatens the food security of farmers.
The three PhD students are inspired living with poor farmers by the impact of the Irish potato. "children are able to eat up to ten potatoes in one meal" said Yenenesh Tewolde who comes from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. "Just to see the children flourish and the parents earn money from the extra crops makes all our research so rewarding".
Considering that Vita and its partners intend to support over one million farmers in the coming years means that there will be many more inspiring stories of change from hunger to prosperity, thanks to the Irish Potato.