Globally the demand for quantity and quality food is fast increasing as a result of population growth, limited water and land, and overexploitation of available resources (Godfray et al., 2010; Tilman et al., 2001). Moreover, global climate change aggravates the biotic and abiotic stresses on food crops (Tester and Langridge, 2010). These environmental changes will negatively affect crop production and food security. Therefore, novel mitigation strategies are required to boost crop productivity and ensure food security. Improved and resilient crop cultivars and their production technologies are among these strategies (Brown and Funk, 2008).
Participatory plant breeding is usually conducted to ensure adoption of newly developed crop cultivars and their production packages by smallholder farmers of marginal agro-ecological and socioeconomic groups (Ceccarelli et al., 2007). In the past, plant breeding focused on developing high-yielding and improved crop cultivars in favorable environments and under controlled experimental situations (Bänziger and Cooper, 2001). As such, conventional plant breeding did not consider farmers’ preferences and attributes, locally available germplasm, and the real conditions of small-scale farmers in pursuit of developing crop cultivars for broad adaptation (Ceccarelli et al., 2000; Witcombe et al., 1996). These failures to engage with the realities faced by local farmers have been identified as the primary causes for the consistently low adoption of newly developed “improved” crop cultivars and their production packages released by government and NGO scientists (Adesina and Baidu-Forson, 1995).
There are varied preferences and needs by end users for crop cultivars. For instance, for industrial starch production, sweetpotato cultivars are required to have high dry matter content, whereas cultivars for human consumption should have other traits such as attractive skin and flesh color, good cooking quality, and high β-carotene, among others. Sweetpotato cultivars intended for animal feed should have high protein content (Lebot, 2009). Therefore, sweetpotato breeding should involve the needs of stakeholders in the developing of new cultivars and new agricultural technologies to meet their diverse requirements (Atlin et al., 2001; Rees et al., 2003).
Agricultural technologies developed through participatory research have a greater chance of adoption and diffusion by farmers because they are developed in response to local constraints and meet end users’ needs and preferences (Ashby and Lilja, 2004). Various research approaches have been reported in participatory breeding of new crop cultivars, including consultative approaches, collaborative approaches, collegial approaches, and farmer experimentation (Ashby and Lilja, 2004). Advantages of farmer participatory research include: 1) codefinition of breeding objectives; 2) participatory evaluation of germplasm; 3) identification of breeding priorities; and 4) participatory selection of promising progenies (Ceccarelli and Grando, 2009). In one case, the incorporation of participatory approaches into conventional breeding programs reduced the time taken for cultivar development from 9 to 6 years (Lilja and Aw-Hasaan, 2003).
In sweetpotato breeding, farmers’ knowledge and experience during preliminary on-farm and on-station evaluations may enable quick identification of promising genotypes (Abidin et al., 2005). Song (1998) reported that the end users’ participation in the improvement of seed systems led to the efficient use of national genetic resources and promoted their production. In selection of high-yielding genotypes, Ceccarelli et al. (2009) observed that farmers have the same selection ability as breeders. Therefore, close collaboration between farmers and breeders is necessary to speed up the breeding process and to respond to appropriate needs of stakeholders.
Application of participatory research requires integrated skills (Ceccarelli et al., 2009). A careful choice of research goals, target environments, and selection of partners are critical steps of participatory research. It also demands a systematic understanding of different types of participatory research approaches to select the most appropriate tools (Ashby and Lilja, 2004) such as participatory rural appraisal, focus group discussions, participatory selection in segregating populations, and participatory cultivar testing and selection (Sperling et al., 2001).
Sweetpotato is an important food and feed crop in sub-Sahara Africa and ranks fourth after maize, bananas, and cassava (FAOSTAT, 2013). It yields considerably well in poor soils and tolerates extreme weather conditions unsuitable to other food crops such as maize and banana (Woolfe, 1992). Therefore, it has an important role in food security in many rural families of drought-affected environments (Bashaasha et al., 1995). Rwanda is the third in sweetpotato production in East Africa and the first in per-capita consumption of sweetpotato in Africa (Chassy et al., 2008). More than 95% of Rwandan farmers grow sweetpotato for household food security (Njeru et al., 2008). During the farming seasons many rural families rely on sweetpotato because of a shortage of other food security crops such as cassava, potato, banana, and maize (Gibson et al., 2004; Njeru et al., 2008). As a result of its high productivity per unit area and continuous availability, sweetpotato is an ideal food crop for Rwanda, the most densely populated (416 persons/km2) country in Africa, with limited agricultural land (NISR, 2012). The crop requires less production inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides than other major crops (Woolfe, 1992). However, the average sweetpotato yield in Rwanda is low, 5.9 t·ha−1 wet weight compared with yields of 22.8 and 21.7 t·ha−1 reported in the United States and Japan, respectively (FAOSTAT, 2013). This requires targeted participatory sweetpotato breeding to develop improved and high-yielding cultivars, and their production packages, according to the needs of the growers in the country. Therefore, the objective of this study was to assess farmers’ perception, production and productivity constraints, preferences, and breeding priorities of sweetpotato in selected agro-ecologies of Rwanda. Results of the study may assist in the breeding and sustainable production of sweetpotato in Rwanda and countries with similar agro-ecologies.
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