Potatoes evolved in the cool, moist climate of the Andes of South America and in highland Mexico, becoming a big hit in Europe a few hundred years ago.
To begin with, the potato was easy to grow here but in the mid 1800s, a dreadful disease, late blight, from Mexico changed everything.
In recent years, the idea that you can breed new varieties of potato with blight resistance has been revived. The search is on for a potato that can survive the blight
We plan eventually to train specialist growers to micropropagate their own seed potatoes.
Breeding potatoes is a lot of fun but the probability of breeding a new variety better than Maris Piper and also disease resistant is very remote.
Establishing a seed potato certification scheme as we have in Europe is difficult but well worth doing.
Breeding of new and improved Sarpo varieties is going ahead. Dr Katherine Steele at Bangor University and I are working on blight resistance in hybrids.
The best seedlings are identified and trialled extensively in the presence of high blight disease pressures.
I grew up in Scotland and was always interested in growing plants, both ornamentals and crop plants. I took a degree at University of Glasgow where my research was on fungal pathogens attacking crop plants. After two years in Michigan USA I returned to UK taking a lectureship at Bangor University .
I retired from teaching in 2012 and set up two companies to work on new varieties of potato with resistance to late blight disease. My aim is to encourage farmers to grow blight resistant potatoes instead of ordinary potatoes that need to be sprayed weekly with toxic chemicals to protect the plants from sudden dead from one of the worst of plant diseases.
I am now trying to get our resistant potatoes made available to smallholder farmers in different countries of sub-Saharan Africa including Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Togo and Zimbabwe.
I look forward to helping with the Agriculture for the Kachomo Community module of the Academy.
Sarpo Potatoes and Africa
I have been developing projects recently in various countries. I report here on our progress to get our low-input, disease-resistant Sarpos accepted so that they can help smallholder farmers to make a better living growing more food.
Uganda has a developing potato industry that suffers from ready availability of quality seed. Late blight is the main disease reducing yield. Crops are grown in the highland SW of the country near Kabale. With the assistance of a small grant from the Impact Accelerator fund of Bangor University we held a training workshop in January 2019 at Makerere University. We sent seed of Sarpo Una in March 2019 to NARO (National Agriculture Research Organisation). The seed was trialled in several NARO sites and we hear that the results were good. We sent seed of Sarpo Una and of Axona in March 2020 to have them trialled. Results from NARO were good but late blight resistance was not tested. NARO says that two more seasons of trials are required before our varieties can be registered but that funding is not available. If approved, the varieties can be commercialised via the Uganda National Seed Potato Producers Association (UNSPPA), a not-for-profit company. Also we are corresponding with a commercial farm owned by a Ugandan (Mike Kasibo) living in Milton Keynes and CEO of GOFMK. He suggests a partnership with SRT.
Kenya has a well developed potato industry and has a CIP branch in Nairobi. I have been corresponding with Dr Anne Njoroge, a late-blight expert who recently was made redundant from CIP in Nairobi. Anne is now a sole trader, Crop Health Consulting. She wishes to import Sarpo seed, have it registered and introduce to Kenya. We hope to send seed of Axona to her in February 2021 for registration. With her extensive knowledge of potato in African conditions she would like to help provide seed to other countries interested in our varieties and to become agent for our seed in SSA.
Ghana does not grow potatoes but imports fresh and frozen French Fries from N. Europe and Bukina Faso. Plant Health allow the import of European seed without trialling varieties for themselves. Most of the country is lowland savannah that has persistent high temperatures. We have a feasibility study funded for 18 months by Innovate UK to grow potatoes in the Northern Region based in Tamale. Partners are Luminno Ltd, Oxford UK, University of Development Studies, Tamale, Excel Bit Com Ltd (supplying agri products and seed to farmers) and Growth Mosaic providing patient investment to start-up companies in Ghana and other countries. We have exported two tonnes of seed (Sarpo Una and Axona) to Ghana in January 2020 to start the project at three irrigated sites. Unfortunately, excessive heat prevented the potatoes from tuberising. A consignment of seed was sent out in June 2020 and was trialled at three rain fed sites near Tamale. Although seed was old and Sarpo varieties were not available, three non-Sarpo varieties were sent. Results were more promising.
I was introduced to Nigel Wanzura at a meeting in York organised by Simon Crawford (Burpee Europe). Nigel was a tobacco farmer but now runs Afrodriptech, a company focusing on improved drip irrigation methods for Zimbawean farmers. He now sells vegetable seeds and is trialling tomatoes, cabbage, Butternut squash etc. He is interested in biopesticides Bt and Metarhizium on cutworm. He will trial OptY Diamond (containing phosphite) as an alternative fungicide on tomato and potato to control late blight and mildew. Nigel is trialling Burpee’s new tomato blight resistant lines. Nigel has taken 10kg Axona seed to Zimbabwe for planting this summer. He wants to short circuit Scotland/Kenya/South Africa/Zim supply chain. He is friendly with registration/plant health people. With help from Bangor University, Anne Njoroge, Tony Little and Burpee Europe we made an application for funding from Innovate Uk. We should know the result by late December.
Mfon Dan, also at the York meeting was in the Oil/Gas industry in Nigeria. He has since started a new company based around a poultry farm and is also trialling new vegetables – potatoes/tomatoes/pepper/okra. He is interested in Public/Private partnerships and has leased a greenhouse in Southern Nigeria. Rich people eat tomato in salad. Poor people cook it and make sauce. Interested in vegetable education in schools. Mfon knows plant health people for regulations re imports of seed. His plan is to take seed of Axona and Sarpo Shona to Nigeria as soon as covid-19 allows.
Concern worldwide has finished a successful project in the Wurch highlands. Links are being developed with project staff about trialling our varieties. Concern worldwide also has potato projects in Burundi.
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
Potatoes are grown in the highlands and suffer from Late blight disease. Dr Diana Earnshaw, who was a PhD graduate in potato late-blight in Bangor University is a lecturer in Plant Pathology at the university. She wishes to import several varieties and grow samples for taste tests. She will invite small farmers to participate as a way of getting them interested in growing Sarpos. Diana suggests a collaboration with other African countries so that Innovate UK funding would become available. Accordingly she has been introduced to Nigel Wanzura in Zimbabwe.
I have had enquiries about supply of our low-input potatoes to Togo from a group of growers associated with the Tony Blair Initiative Global. Potatoes have been grown in Togo for several years but the industry is limited by lack of quality seed and by Late Blight disease. Sarpo Potatoes is hoping to supply seed starting in the 2021 season. Our potato team in Tamale, Ghana is arranging to visit growers in the north of Togo (Savannah Region) for a bit of Knowledge Transfer. Sarpo seed for testing prior to selling it to growers is being sent with the next consignment to Tamale, Ghana.
I have recently had a request to send seed samples to a large potato company, ACI Agribusiness, in Bangladesh. They value blight resistance highly because of their warm, moist climate. They already have GM potatoes with inserted resistance genes developed at their R and D facility, ASRBC (Advanced Seed Research and Biotech Centre). They want to grow samples of all of our varieties for planting in late 2020 September/October. We hope to negotiate with them an agency for Bangladesh. At present certified seed of our Sarpo varieties is grown in Scotland by Andrew Skea (potatohouse.co.uk). Tony Little, sole trader of Sustainable Farming Consultancy, experienced in growing certified seed of Sarpo cvs in Wales in recent years via a Welsh Government grant, is now employed part time by Skea to arrange the export of Sarpo seed to Africa.
Propagation of Sarpo varieties via stem cuttings
Elsner, a large propagation company in Germany has been producing rooted cuttings from motherplants at its site in Portugal. Until recently these were sold in Europe by Volmary. Elsner will now grow and market rooted cuttings themselves. They have a site in Kenya and might supply foundation stock as rooted cuttings to seed growers in SSA.
David Shaw, Sarvari Research Trust.
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