It’s orange, hard, and a bit lumpy looking, and not necessarily attractive. You may not like it, or even give it much credit. But it’s nutritious and it’s saving lives in Uganda. Venture a guess as to what it is? It’s the humble sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes have been cultivated around the world for centuries. They grow mainly in tropical areas, but they can be grown in temperate climates as well. The sweet potato is naturally rich in vitamin A, an essential nutrient. Poor populations of the world, such as those in Uganda, tend to suffer from a vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin A deficiency is responsible for stunting growth in children as well as for suppressing the immune systems, thereby increasing the likelihood of their contracting an array of diseases. It also leads to increased maternal mortality. According to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, the deficiency affects a significant segment of the Ugandan population, specifically 38 percent of children ages 6-59 months and 36 percent of women in the 15-49-year-old age bracket.
A new variety of the sweet potato, the orange-fleshed sweet potato, contains even more vitamin A than a typical spud. It was first introduced in 2007 by HarvestPlus, a division of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Since then, several new varieties have been introduced. Anna-Marie Ball, HarvestPlus Country Manager for Uganda, says, “Uganda was selected to pilot orange-fleshed sweet potato breeding and dissemination because sweet potato is grown by over 44 percent of Ugandan farmers and is the fourth most important staple food in the country.”
The popularity of this sweet potato is increasing as over 55,000 Ugandan farming households now grow this vegetable. The United States Agencies for International Development (USAID) expects that number to rise to as many as 237,000 households by 2018.
Why the sweet potato? Although the highest concentrations of vitamin A are found in liver and fish oils, as well as milk and eggs, many people do not have regular access to these foods. The most common sources of dietary vitamin A are green, leafy vegetables; fruits; a few vegetable oils; and yellow or orange vegetables like the sweet potato. Since the sweet potato was already a common part of the Ugandan diet, an enhanced version with extra vitamins and minerals is a perfect choice to fill the nutritional gap.
According to NPR, Charles Musoke, a specialist who works with HarvestPlus Uganda, says that the orange-fleshed sweet potato is “cross-bred with local potato varieties,” which are white. Not only does this make the potato high in vitamin A—eradicating nutritional deficiencies—it is also sweet like the local white sweet potato, it grows quickly, and it produces high yields.
Specially-trained agricultural staff work with local farming groups to make sure the special sweet potato plants are widely available and sustainable. It is hoped and believed that if the plants are available to enough people who plant them and subsequently take care of them, the potatoes will become well-known and widely used across the country.
Even schools in Uganda are getting in on the act. Wanting to have access to the orange-fleshed sweet potato as well, many schools have their own gardens where they grow sweet potatoes as their main crop. Though grown at school, the roots are eaten and the extra vines are taken home to plant in the families’ gardens, thus helping to eliminate both hunger and vitamin A deficiency in the villages.
Easy to grow, culturally accepted, and packed with nutrition, the humble but mighty sweet potato might well be the answer to vitamin A deficiency in Uganda and other poor countries around the globe.