The Sunday Mail
Word From The Market
Bolton Kudzai Kakava
SWEET potatoes are among the many crops that can thrive in Zimbabwe’s soils and climate, meaning the country can be a major player in the global market.
The global sweet potato market continues to grow, particularly in Europe.
According to the Crop Breeding Institute, consumption of sweet potatoes is mainly developed in the United Kingdom.
However, the Netherlands is a trade hub for northern European growth markets such as Germany and France.
The sweet potato (Ipomea batatas L.) is a root vegetable. It is usually confused with Irish potatoes (solanum tuberosum L.).
However, there are several types of sweet potatoes, and they are classified according to their skin colour and flesh, for example, orange skin with orange flesh, as well as red skin with orange flesh.
Sweet potatoes are rich in fibre, complex carbohydrates and beta carotene, as well as micronutrients that include vitamin B5 and B6.
The leaves are edible and can be cooked as a delicacy.
The preferred varieties are the orange-fleshed ones such as Covington, Beauregard, Bellevue, Evangeline and Orleans.
The types are patented, except for Beauregard, which is now an open variety.
The patented varieties are only grown under special arrangements with the plant breeders or licensed nurseries. Royalties are paid to the plant breeders as part of the international plant breeders’ rights.
To ensure good quality and longer shelf life, producers must cure their sweet potatoes.
Curing sweet potatoes is a common practice for long-distance suppliers.
Curing is usually done for up to a week at a temperature of 28-30ºC and a relative humidity of 85 to 95 percent.
The curing sets the skin and heals the wounds. It also turns the starch into sugars.
Storage, after curing, is done at 12-14ºC.
The European market for sweet potatoes has increased significantly in the past years, and is likely to grow in the long term.
There is a huge demand for imported sweet potatoes, which explains why Europe is an interesting export market for local supplies.
The main export markets for sweet potatoes are the UK, Germany, France and Belgium.
The Netherlands is the main point of entry to other European markets.
Statistics show that in 2021, the value of imported sweet potatoes by main European importers were as follows: Netherlands (€147 million), UK (€106 million), Germany (€51 million), France (€48 million), Belgium (€35 million) and Spain (€11 million).
The UK has the biggest market in Europe for sweet potatoes.
It has a well-developed processing industry and a taste for new products and cuisines.
In 2021, a total of 129 000 tonnes were imported.
The United States and Egypt remain the biggest non-European suppliers of sweet potatoes.
South Africa is also gaining a market share, with a volume of 6 000 tonnes in 2021.
According to trade statistics, sweet potato import prices between 2017 and 2021 ranged from €0,65 to €0,85 per kilogramme (kg).
When in short supply, prices can go over €1 per kg.
Germany’s import price for sweet potatoes in 2019 was US$1,43 per kg.
The packaging requirements for sweet potatoes vary from open-top boxes, boxes with flaps or telescopic boxes with lids.
Packaging boxes should be made from high-quality cardboard.
The common packaging includes 6kg;15kg;18kg open-top cartons, for example, 40cm by 30cm (6 kg) or 60cm by 40cm (18 kg); 8kg telescopic boxes, and 10kg boxes with flaps.
Producers must avoid or minimise pesticide residues and contaminants.
Pesticide residues are among the crucial issues for fruit and vegetable suppliers.
The European Union has set maximum residue levels (MRLs) for pesticides in and on food products.
Fresh sweet potatoes containing more pesticides than allowed will be withdrawn from the market.
The same applies to contaminants such as heavy metals.
Retailers in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria use MRLs that are stricter than those laid down in the European legislation.
Producers must also follow phytosanitary requirements. Each consignment of exported sweet potatoes must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate, which guarantees that they were inspected and are free of pests and diseases in line with European Union (EU) plant health requirements.
In Zimbabwe, the Plant Quarantine Services Institute is the local plant protection organisation that issues such certificates.
Certification and sustainability
The common certification for fresh sweet potatoes is GLOBALG.A.P. for good agricultural practices and BRCGS, IFS or similar HACCP-based food safety management systems for packing and processing facilities.
Producers are recommended to use Global Food Safety Initiative-recognised food safety management systems.
Sustainable and social standards are now a norm in the global fruit and vegetable markets.
Besides GLOBALG.A.P., a social certificate such as Sedex Members Ethical Trade Initiative (SMETA) or GLOBALG.A.P.
Risk Assessment on Social Practice (GRASP) is highly recommended to get your product to meet retail standards.
In addition, retailers such as Tesco have their individual standards, such as Tesco Nurture
(GLOBALG.A.P. add-on) and Mark and Spencer Field to Fork.
Organic certification is another way to set your product apart and market it at a higher price.
Organic sweet potatoes must comply with the EU organic regulations.
The new regulation, (EU) 2018/848, has been in force since January 2022.
Zimbabwe has signed trade agreements with the UK and the EU, such as the United Kingdom-Eastern and Southern Africa Economic Partnership Agreement (UK-ESA EPA), which allows local produce to enjoy duty- and quota-free access into the UK market.
Zimbabwe is also a signatory to the EU-ESA interim EPA agreement for Zimbabwean produce to be given preferential treatment through enjoyment of duty- and quota-free access.
Furthermore, Zimbabwe signed trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates and China.
Why sweet potatoes?
Sweet potato exports can bring the much-needed foreign currency that can boost farmers’ livelihoods and the economy at large.
Sweet potatoes have a lower initial capital investment, compared to other crops such as blueberries, avocados and citrus fruits.
They also give a high return on investment over a short period, usually three months.
Furthermore, sweet potatoes have lesser cold chain requirements, compared to blueberries, avocados and citrus fruits.
They take 80-100 days to mature and are drought-tolerant, making them a suitable crop in drought-prone regions.
The crop can yield up to more than 40 tonnes per hectare if good agronomic practices are observed.
Local sweet potato producers should take advantage of the trade agreements and global demand for sweet potatoes.
It is important to comply with regulatory and private standards such as GLOBALG.A.P. for local producers and processors to access global markets.
Bolton Kudzai Kakava is a regulations and compliance consultant, as well as a regenerative organic agriculture agronomist. Word from the Market is a column produced by the Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) to promote market-driven production. Feedback: [email protected] or WhatsApp/Call +263781706212.