Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is consumed widely in CARICOM countries with per capita consumption being higher among the major producing countries. As a result, the volume of exports as a percentage of total production is generally small. There are two basic types of sweet potato on the market:
- ‘Moist-flesh’ – sweet, orange, and soft with a moist flesh when cooked
- ‘Dry-flesh’ – dry and starchy with a firm flesh when cooked
The moist-flesh varieties are also known as dessert-types and account for most of the output in the US. While varieties produced in the Caribbean are the ‘dry-flesh’ types which may be yellow or white in flesh colour and are most often used as a source of carbohydrate. With regard to health benefits, sweet potato has a comparatively high content of vitamins A, C and antioxidants that can help prevent heart disease and cancer, enhance nutrient metabolism, bolster the immune system and even slow aging by promoting good vision and healthy skin. It is also an excellent source of copper, manganese, potassium, iron and vitamin B-6.
A 2009 study commissioned by CARICOM on the competiveness and industry potential of the sweet potato found that a limited volume was traded regionally. The view was that this market was grossly underexploited since per capita consumption of the fresh tuber in a number of countries was low to very low. Also the production of value-added was found to be almost non-existent.
The study also highlighted several limiting factors:
- Extra-Regional Market Opportunities: The only significant extra-regional market for CARICOM Sweet Potato exports is the UK market which is a highly competitive market with a number of traditional suppliers from Africa and Asia having strong market presence
- Competitiveness of Sweet Potato Exports: Only Jamaica and Trinidad are price competitive in the UK market.
- The CARICOM Market:
- Intra-regional trade in sweet potato is rather limited with the largest volume taking place between St. Vincent and Trinidad & Tobago. With the exception of Jamaica and St. Vincent most of the sweet potato produced in CARICOM is consumed in the producing country
- Competitiveness of US Imports: Sweet potato imports from the US into CARICOM are not price competitive.
- Value –Added Products: Regional production of value added products from sweet potato is negligible
- Productivity of sweet potato: Sweet potato yields in CARICOM are well below potential, with losses due to diseases and pests.
Why invest in sweet potato production?
Despite some limiting factor, good potential for the development of a viable sweet potato industry in CARICOM exists:
- Its good shelf life
- Exhibits high versatility with respect to growing conditions and low susceptibility to natural disasters such as hurricanes
- Amenable to typical small scale farming systems characteristic of the region
- Value-added products, ranging from flour and paper to wood and pharmaceuticals, offer market and investment potential
- Identified as a potential climate change adaptation crop