Like many of his neighbors, Nguyen Duc Du relied on government food aid when typhoons – which regularly visited Tan Tien village in Quang Binh province – destroyed their rice crops. Except one time, nearly a decade ago, when the valley got flooded and no relief teams could get in. Then they had their stock of boiled and sun-dried sweetpotatoes to thank for tiding them over while waiting for food to be airdropped.

On September 15th 2017 Typhoon Doksuri tore through Central Vietnam, submerging thousands of houses in a particularly virulent and damaging downpour that lasted for eight hours. The provinces of Ha Tinh and Quang Binh were later described in news reports as the worst hit.

Du lost everything in his 10-hectare acacia tree farm.

Typhoon Doksuri tore through Central Vietnam on September 15, 2017, leaving in its wake damaged fields. Photo by Madelline Romero/CIAT

Silver lining

The only silver lining, if one could call it that, in this natural event is that the commune’s rice crops had already been harvested before Doksuri made landfall. Most households in the commune planted just enough rice for their own consumption; the rest of their fields were planted with cash crops such as the ubiquitous acacia, and pepper; cassava for industrial use, livestock feed, and human food; and a few other crops that they both sold and used for household consumption – sweetpotato, maize, peanut, banana, and others.

And when typhoon Doksuri came, some crops held up better than others.

The morning after the storm hit, Nguyen Thi Vinh was greeted with all sorts of felled crops in her field in Village 5, Quang Thach commune: broken banana tree branches, collapsed pepper plants, cassava plants crushed by heavy rains to the ground. What gave her hope was seeing her sweetpotato plants, all 2,000 square meters of them, a little bit humbled, some of their leaves wiped out, but nevertheless still standing and firmly rooted.

“I can still sell the roots next month,” Vĩnh said. Occupying a third of her farm, sweetpotato is Vinh’s biggest earner, selling at VND5,000 to 7,000 (USD0.20-0.30) per kilo for the roots, and VND4,000 (USD0.17) per kilo for planting materials. Sweetpotato roots fetch the second highest price among Vĩnh’s crops, after pepper. Considering the damage to the plants’ leaves, Vinh expects her typical annual income of VND7 million from sweetpotato, to be reduced to 30 to 40 percent this year. She estimates to incur a total loss of VND15 million – more than USD600 – this year due to the damage wreaked by Doksuri to her crops.

Roots and tubers are more tolerant than grains to extreme weather events. They can provide additional good income to farmers. Photo by Madelline Romero/CIAT

Sweet fallback

“Smallholder farmers are prone to a wide array of natural and man-made disasters that threaten their food security and livelihoods. In order to face these challenges, it is important to diversify the crops in the field,” said Diego Naziri, project leader of the Food Resilience through Root and Tuber Crops in Upland and Coastal Communities of the Asia-Pacific (FoodSTART+) project. “Roots and tubers are particularly suitable crops since they are locally available and more tolerant than grains to extreme weather events and climate change. For instance, the main harvested products, being underground, can escape typhoons. Cassava is highly tolerant to droughts, and some varieties of sweetpotato can survive in soil with increased level of salinity. Sweetpotato and potatoes also have short growing cycles and can help ensure food security after disastrous events. Furthermore, with the exception of cassava, they are not much traded globally and therefore are less exposed to extreme price fluctuations on the international markets.”

Funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and European Union (EU), FoodSTART+ aims to enhance food resilience among poor households by introducing root and tuber crops innovations.

In the province of Quang Binh, root and tuber crops are planted on 11 percent of agricultural land, according to a 2016 scoping study performed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) for FoodSTART+, with nearly 6,000 hectares of cassava, and nearly 3,000 hectares of sweet potato. The study adds that cassava is mostly seen as a cash crop, and farmers’ decision to plant it often depends on prices offered by starch processing factories and suitability of the soil. On the other hand, sweetpotato is planted on very small areas primarily for household consumption, with surpluses sold in local markets on an irregular basis.

Some farmers also cited the limited area of low-lying lands – which are naturally occupied by rice – and the inability of sweetpotato to grow on sloping land, which dominates the valley’s terrain, as one of the factors constraining further expansion of the crop.

Despite that, most farmers would readily agree to growing more sweetpotato if any kind of support, for example, on access to clean planting materials, was given. Du recalled how he started planting acacia 15 years ago when he got encouraged by a government program providing planting materials. He continues to look towards the government for advice and assistance to be able to better invest his time and resources amidst recurring extreme weather events hitting the commune. He added that expanding his sweetpotato field would not be such a bad idea given that it takes only 3 to 4 months to grow and be ready for harvest.

In Quang Binh province, sweetpotato is planted on very small areas primarily for household consumption. Photo by Madelline Romero/CIAT
Root and tuber crops’ short growing cycles help ensure food security after disastrous events. Photo by Madelline Romero/CIAT

Sweetening the deal

One such assistance to farmers is through small projects than can help farmers get more income from growing sweetpotato and cassava. To be funded by the IFAD-supported Sustainable Rural Development for the Poor (SRDP) investment project, the ‘mini projects’ were designed by the farmers themselves, with technical support from the FoodSTART+ project which provided training about sustainable farming practices, and adding value to and marketing the two crops.

The IFAD investment project aims to stimulate rural development models that promote pro-poor market linkages and value chains, and that enhance rural business competitiveness. The FoodSTART+ project in Vietnam contributes to this objective through complementing research and initiatives. Apart from Vietnam, FoodSTART+ has activities in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. It is coordinated by the International Potato Center (CIP) and implemented in collaboration with CIAT, in the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

“Partnerships with rural investment projects supported by IFAD constitute an important component of FoodSTART+. Agricultural research organizations are extremely capable in developing innovations, but a single project often does not have the capacity to reach out tens or hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries. This limits the adoption of promising technologies. Working closely with large-scale investment projects promotes effective scaling up of innovations for achieving common goals such as improved food security, nutrition and livelihoods,” said Naziri.

Tran Thi Tao, a 26-year old farmer from the Cao Quang commune, looks forward to the possibility of expanding her sweetpotato field from the current 500 square meters to 2,500, as a result of the project. “If the project does not pan out, I will still try to plant more sweet potato,” Thao added. “The roots can give good money selling at VND20,000 per kilo.”

In preparation, Thao attended the training conducted by FoodStart+ in early September. At the training attended by more than 25 participants consisting of farmers and government extension workers from the Coa Quang and Quang Thach communes, experts shared sustainable farming practices, including on selecting good varieties, identifying and addressing crop diseases, and soil management. Also discussed was the topic of producing high-quality planting material, the lack of access to which was identified by many farmers as one of the major barriers to their planting more sweetpotato. In response, the group has made a plan to create a “clean sweetpotato planting material multiplication center,” which would house disease-free and potentially high-yielding planting materials for the use of farmers in the two communes.

In addition, Thao is excited to try out sweet potato processing recipes that she got from a trainer based in the Philippines, another country where FoodStart+ promotes root and tuber crops for food security and resilience. “They showed us a video of how they process sweet potato in different ways in the Philippines, and it’s encouraging. I’m excited to try out some of the recipes,” she added.

A similar training on cassava was delivered in July 2017 in Vietnam, which covered sustainable farming – including cassava intercropping – and inclusive business practices.

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