The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding sweet potato crop research in Africa.

Gates Foundation funding sweet potato researchNorth Carolina State University will receive $12.4 million from the foundation over the next four years to find ways to improve crops in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a university news release.

With the grant, NC State researchers will develop modern genomic, genetic and bioinformatics tools to improve sweet potatoes’ ability to resist diseases and insects and to better tolerate drought and heat.

Sweet potatoes are a major crop in sub-Saharan Africa, with the ability to alleviate hunger, vitamin A deficiency and poverty.

More than 13.5 million metric tons are produced in sub-Saharan Africa annually. They are predominantly grown in small plot holdings by poor women farmers, according to the release.

“Sweet potato is a hardy crop that can be planted in drought-prone and low-fertility soils,” Craig Yencho, NC State professor of horticultural science, head of the university’s sweet potato breeding program and the Gates project director, said in the release. “Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are an excellent source of vitamin A, rank first in nutritional quality among root and tuber crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa, providing vitamins for millions of people.”