The essence of Vitamin A

Farmers in Rwanda are growing the orange-fleshed sweet potato and will make a puree and use it to make bakery products like bread, biscuits, and chapattis, among others.

Last week, the BioInnovate Africa Project through the International Potato Center (CIP) launched a new project in Kigali.

The USD750,000 budgeted project is expected to cover four East African Countries—Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Dubbed ‘Orange-fleshed Sweet potato (OFSP) Puree for Bakery Applications in East Africa’ for nutrition, post-harvest loss management, and youth & women economic empowerment, the project is expected to expand the value chain of orange fleshed sweet potato across the region.

BioInnovate Africa is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and is based at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya.

The programme, according to officials, supports scientists and innovators in the region in linking biological based research ideas and technologies to business and the market.

Speaking at the event, CIP regional food scientist, Muzhingi Tawanda, explained that at CIP, they have been promoting OFSP within communities in East Africa because of its abundance in Vitamin A, as its deficiency is a big problem in the region.

“So one of the strategies to make sure that there is sustainable adoption of OFSP is to do some value addition, so that when farmers grow the nutritious crop they can continue to grow year after year. But there has to be some money attached to it,” he said.

Tawanda explained that partners want to work with the Private Sector and food companies so that they can start to see OFSP as an ingredient in their manufacturing processes, providing new products that use OFSP that are safe, nutritious to eat and that also provide income opportunities and employment opportunities for the youth.

“In Rwanda, we are working with a social enterprise called the Women’s Bakery, they are going to work with farmers who are going to grow the orange-fleshed sweet potato and then they will make a puree and use that mash to make bakery products like bread, biscuits, and chapattis, among others.


About 48 per cent of children in sub Saharan Africa are deficient in vitamin A. Orange fleshed sweet potato is extremely rich in beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A.

Vitamin A, along with other vitamins, minerals and other compounds, is an essential micronutrient.

According to Faustin Machara, a maternal and child feeding specialist at National Early Childhood Development Program (NECDP), our bodies cannot manufacture vitamin A, therefore, it has to be included in our diet.

One of the main consequences of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), he says, is an increased risk of severe infection.

“Infection increases the body’s demand for vitamin A and so the deficiency gets worse. Children can, therefore, become involved in a vicious cycle of deficiency and infection, which is why vitamin A deficiency is such an important cause of child mortality,” he says.

Machara says vitamin A is the name of a group of fat-soluble vitamins which comprise of retinol, retinal, retinoic acid and many pro-Vitamin A carotenoids.

He says vitamin A is naturally present in many foods and is needed in small quantity.

As vitamin A affects a wide range of body functions, Machara says its deficiency can lead to a variety of problems, including night blindness, a higher risk of infections, fertility issues and delayed growth in children.

For children, he explains that vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to the mortality of children under five, and causes severe visual impairment and blindness and significantly increases the risk of severe illness, and even death, from such common childhood infections as diarrhoeal diseases and measles.

When it comes to pregnant women, he says, especially those in high-risk areas, vitamin A deficiency occurs mostly during the last trimester when demand by both the unborn child and the mother is at its highest.

The deficiency in this particular vitamin may also increase the risk of maternal mortality, premature birth, and low birth weight.


Private Kamanzi, a nutritionist at Amazon Nutrition Cabinet, a clinic in Kigali that deals with diet, physical wellness and lifestyle, says there are two main sources of vitamin A: animal sources and plant sources.

He notes that all the sources of vitamin A need some fat in the diet to aid absorption.

In animal sources, Kamanzi says vitamin A is found as retinol.

Animal sources include egg yolk and dairy products such as milk (including human breast milk), cheese and butter, meat among others.

Whereas, he says, plant sources contain vitamin A in the form of carotenoids which have to be converted during digestion into retinol before the body can use it.

“Carotenoids are the pigments that give plants their green colour and some fruits and vegetables their red or orange colour,” says the nutritionist.

Plant sources of vitamin A include; mangos, papaya, carrots, sweet potatoes. Other good sources of vitamin A are red palm oil and palm oil.


According to Kamanzi, it is important that all sources of vitamin A are not overcooked. He notes that this is so because this can reduce the vitamin A content.

He says vitamin A from plant or animal origin both play one role in our bodies. However, when it comes to eye health, he says, the most needed is beta carotene which is normally acquired from plant origin food and not found in animal origin food.

“This means that when one doesn’t consume enough of plant origin foods, they are at risk of developing vision problems/blindness, which are a result vitamin A deficiency,” he says.

Erick Musengimana, a nutritionist at Rwanda Diabetes Association, Kigali, says vitamin A acts as an antioxidant, it helps in eliminating cancer-causing agents in the body, therefore, preventing cancer from occurring.

He says everyone is exposed to cancer-causing agents because of what we eat, breathe and many other reasons; and for our bodies to have ability against cancer agents, one of the elements needed is vitamin A.

Musengimana adds that it as well helps in the strengthening of the immune system, it increases the capacity of the body to defend itself from getting diseases.

“Vitamin A also helps in growth when it comes to children. It activates vitamin D and iodine and helps the thyroid gland which is a vital hormone.

It also acts as a catalyst for the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

According to experts, vitamin A is essential for proper vision and growth, the reproduction system and immune system. The lungs, kidneys, and other organs work efficiently because of vitamin A.


Machara says malnutrition, including micro nutrient deficiency, especially Vitamin A deficiency, remains one of the most common causes of morbidity and mortality among children under five years.

In Rwanda, according to the recent Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis 2018 (CFSVA), for children under five, the stunting was at 35 per cent, wasting at two per cent and underweight was at 13 per cent.

Machara notes that even though the data on vitamin A deficiency is not readily available in Rwanda, vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa, hitting hardest young children and pregnant women in low-income countries.

He says delivery of high-dose of vitamin A remains the principal strategy for controlling vitamin A deficiency in the country.

According to him, food-based approaches, such as food fortification, bio-fortification, and consumption of foods rich in vitamin A are also being promoted.

“There is broad evidence that pro-vitamin and bio-fortified orange-fleshed sweet potato reduces vitamin A deficiency in children and women,” he adds.

In Rwanda, high-dose of vitamin A supplementation for children (aged between six months to five years) is done through national mass campaigns twice a year.

He says that vitamin A supplementation coverage rate (percentage of children aged six months to five years who receive high-dose of Vitamin A twice a year) in Rwanda is roughly 95 per cent.