BULAWAYO – As the morning sun rises, a shirtless Daniel Sambani digs the earth, creating rows of neat mounds with the soil.
The small piece of land Sambani is preparing is one of many lots across the city that people have occupied to plant sweet potatoes, a traditional rural staple that is now gaining popularity in Zimbabwe’s cities as increasingly unpredictable weather drives up the price of maize meal.
Like many people in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Sambani plants sweet potatoes during the rainy season, a time of the year when urban families struggling with empty pantries take up small-scale subsistence farming to feed their families and sell any excess.
This year, Zimbabwe has seen exceptionally high rainfall, according to the meteorological department.
“This (planting) season, I have looked for more space to plant sweet potatoes and I think this will help keep hunger at bay,” he said.
“I don’t think I will be buying any bread or mealie meal (coarse maize flour) in the coming months.”
In rural areas, where foods like bread are beyond the reach of many, sweet potatoes are a regular on the table. But as rising prices and lower incomes force urban residents to change their eating habits, the starch-rich sweet potato has become a regular feature of urban breakfast tables.
Since the introduction of the dollar as the national currency in 2009, food prices have remained high in Zimbabwe, and the government is promoting both rural and urban farming to cushion consumers and reduce the amount of food families need to buy. As a result, many Zimbabweans are turning any available land into farming lots.
Development expert and researcher Tapuwa Gomo says it makes sense both for families’ diets and finances for farmers to shift to sweet potatoes as an increasingly important staple.
“Sweet potatoes generally serve as a source of starch and vegetables, both of which are known for having better nutritional content compared to bread,” Gomo said.
Growing them “must be encouraged, not only for their economic value but also for their nutritional value.”
According to the International Potato Center, based in Peru, sweet potato — a hugely productive and relatively easy-to-grow plant – is the most important crop in developing countries after rice, wheat, maize and cassava.
The organisation’s research indicates that production is increasing rapidly in Africa.
Nigel Makumbe, an agriculture extension officer with Zimbabwe’s agriculture ministry, says tubers such as sweet potatoes are being encouraged across the country as a response to food insecurity.
“Because of seasonal rains that have become very unpredictable, we are now assisting smallholders to plant tubers that can be done through the year,” Makumbe said.
“Sweet potatoes and cassava are being shifted from being mere rural culinary preferences to wider availability especially now that urban farming is being encouraged,” he said.
The University of Zimbabwe’s crop science department says it is assisting local growers with research on disease-resistant sweet potato varieties. Subsistence farmers like Sambani hope this will mean better yields.
This year, “I will certainly be selling some of my sweet potatoes because not everyone planted this crop,” he said.
— Thomas Reuters