This Month We Celebrate
We want to change the image of sweet potatoes said Regis Umugiraneza
I am Regis, and I grew up in an area where sweet potatoes are grown extensively in local areas. My country, Rwanda, was rated many times as one of the highest producers of sweet potatoes, growing approximately 80 kg per capita.
I grew up eating sweet potatoes daily prepared by my mother, and I didn’t like them, but my strict mother kept me going on that meal without much complaint. It was our daily meal from morning to evening, three times a day without tasting any other alternative dish. That pushed me to wonder if there is no other way sweet potatoes can be processed to create another variety from the same raw material that could at least provide us with another alternative dish to enjoy.
As I grew up life was getting better for our family to the point we could switch the meal and have alternative dishes, but I couldn’t forget the sweet potatoes that raised me and my neighborhood. That put me on a quest of finding out how an undervalued crop like sweet potatoes can be turned into a crop of unparalleled value that can be craved and eaten by everyone, instead of being considered food for the animals and for the poor families.
When I turned 12, I lost a best friend, and the community claimed that it was due to malnutrition. From that point on my dream was reinforced by the sorrow this loss caused me. I envisioned a big food-processing industry, basing its raw materials from what we grow locally, to help children who die every day from malnutrition when we have enough land to cultivate adequate crops.
Inspired by that dream, I studied Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics and took food science courses at university. In my research dissertation I conducted a study about orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, and in that research I conducted several interviews to understand the problems farmers of sweet potatoes face.
The results showed me that many have started to grow a new species of sweet potato called Orange-fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP), but they were not getting market for their products because it’s considered a rural crop and food for animals.
That led me to embark on extensive research about that species, and fortunately I found out its many advantages to combat malnutrition diseases and save lives.
Vitamin A deficiency contributes to a significant number of blindness diseases and premature deaths of young children. Young children and pregnant women or lactating women are particularly at risk of Vitamin A deficiency. Yet orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are a great source of energy and beta-carotene, which is converted into Vitamin A in the body.
For that reason, we want to change the image of sweet potatoes, which is currently considered of little value in our community. We will achieve that by adding value to it, transforming it into a variety of products that all different classes of people can enjoy. Then the community can benefit from the vitamin A residing in these accessible and cheap sweet potatoes.
I am currently 25 years old, and I officially launched CARL Group two years ago. The Group focuses on buying sweet potatoes from farmers in the areas of Ruhango, Muhanga, Rulindo and Gakenke and turns them into various processed products. Farmers can benefit from their own crops by getting a considerable market for their products, and also a variety of other products to enjoy from their sweet potato crop.
I currently partner with 4 cooperatives in different districts of the country. I have a team of 14 people in the company, and I anticipate tripling both the numbers of the team members and the sweet potatoes processed very soon.
We currently produce the following products from these sweet potatoes, which we call VIT-A products: Crisps, cakes, bread and sweet potato donuts (our most popular product). Soon we are launching a new kind of sweet potato pasta (spaghetti).
This project was made possible by different funding sources, including the one awarded to us by the Ministry of Youth & ICT in Rwanda in a competition entitled “Youth Breaking the Cycle of Poverty”. We also marketed our products in a recent “MADE IN RWANDA” Expo, where our products passed across media, and the responses were very promising.
We found a welcoming audience, hungry to consume all our product varieties. They were interested in them, and encouraged the community to grow more sweet potatoes.
Our mission is to give value to sweet potatoes, and move them from being subsistence crops to cash crops. Our vision is to become a market leader of sweet potatoes in the East African region.
Although CARL Group is producing its product varieties for local consumption, it has already finalized the spaghetti research and envisions these products having a reach beyond the borders of Rwanda to an international market.
I submitted this Project In a worldwide competition Of young Agripreneurs organized by at GFAR and CGIAR and if your admire my idea you can vote for me here YAP Proposal #308: Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (Regis Umugiraneza, Rwanda)