Which extension methods work best? Teaching young mothers about orange-fleshed sweetpotato

Which extension methods work best? Teaching young mothers about orange-fleshed sweetpotato

To grow nutritious orange-fleshed sweetpotato, women need vine cuttings for re-planting, as well as motivating information about the root’s nutritional value. Young mothers in Kenya were more likely to keep growing these nutritious sweetpotato varieties at least one year after initial planting, depending on how they learned about the crop. The most effective teaching methods were practical sessions at open days, radio talk shows and personal contact with trusted local farmers who were experts at growing and sharing sweetpotato vines. Other extension methods were not effective.

Farmers packing quality sweetpotato seed after purchase in Nungwe, Tanzania. K. Ogero (CIP)

In the Homa Bay area of western Kenya, CIP collaborated with the local government to share orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) vine cuttings and agronomic and nutritional information with pregnant women and mothers of children under five. Getting their hands on the cuttings gave women the ability to plant OFSP, while the information motivated them to do so.

The planting material was distributed by decentralized vine multipliers (DVMs), respected, local farmers trained to produce high quality vines. The DVMs supplied the women with one or two varieties of OFSP, while sharing some neighborly advice on how to nurture the crop.

Information was packaged in other ways as well. Some women received nutrition talks, counselling and cooking demonstrations by community health volunteers (local women who had been trained by extension workers). At “open day” events expert agronomists provided hands-on guidance in sweetpotato cultivation, including planting practices, length of vine cuttings, spacing of plants, keeping vines during the dry season, weeds, pests and diseases, timing of harvest, and post-harvest. The open days contrasted with “field days,” which were less intense and less structured. Participants of field days toured sweetpotato demonstration plots with agronomists who explained how to grow and manage the crop and then answered questions. FM radio stations also broadcast talk shows in local languages on OFSP discussing nutrition and the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency.

One year after receiving the vines, 537 women were interviewed to see if they were still planting the new sweetpotatoes. Of 372 surveyed women who received one variety during the short rainy season (preferred for planting sweetpotatoes in this part of Kenya), three out of four were still planting OFSP, while only about one out of three who received vines in the long rainy season were still doing so. Women who had low-lying wetlands could more easily keep the crop alive over the dry season, and they were more likely to plant the new varieties a year after receiving them.

So, agronomy mattered, but so did the way information was shared. Listening to radio talk shows, attending open days and collecting vines directly from a DVM (and not from another farmer), all influenced women to continue to plant OFSP a year later. Other methods had no effect, including contact with a community health volunteer, or attending field days.

Not all extension methods are equal. Convincing information may come in the form of a well-prepared open day, an engaging talk show in the local language, or as a bit of mentoring from a DVM who is a neighbor and a farmer, says CIP’s Julius Okello, who led the extension study. These insights should benefit many extension programs, not just those that share information on good nutrition practices and sweetpotatoes.