Could sweet potato be a solution to Africa’s food insecurity, malnutrition?

Jan Low is World Food Prize Co-Laureate and the Principal Scientist for the International Potato Centre. The agricultural economist is advocating for nutrition to be made a basic human right. / Courtesy

Jan Low is an agricultural economist at International Potato Center in Kenya, with over 25 years of experience working in sub-Saharan Africa.

Her long-term research interest is on how to successfully integrate nutritional concerns into agricultural research and development, with a special focus on micronutrient-enhanced Orange-fleshed Sweet potato.

While in Kigali to organise the African Potato Association Conference due in August, Sunday Times’ Sharon Kantengwa caught up with the World Food Prize Co-Laureate and Principal Scientist for the International Potato Centre to talk about the effectiveness of orange-fleshed sweet potato in solving Africa’s food security problem and malnutrition.

Why have you chosen Orange-fleshed sweetpotato as a center of your work with International Potato Center (CIP) especially in the sub-Saharan African countries including Rwanda?

Sweet potato is a diverse crop naturally, with a range of colors, orange fleshed, purple fleshed, yellow and white.

While working with the Kenya Agricultural Institute we did a small study and we found out orange fleshed potato was not preferred even though it is rich in Vitamin-A because people wanted the floury texture which is associated with high dry matter. Yet a lot of the orange varieties have low dry matter which the children prefer because they are easy to swallow.

Currently 48 per cent of children in Africa have Vitamin-A deficiency, so it’s a no brainer that we had to take the crop that people are used to eating and make it more nutritious to solve a major public health problem.

In your recent research you mention about urban people not consuming sweet potato. What is International Potato Center doing to tackle this problem?

Sweet potato is being associated with rural areas because urban consumers love convenience, it’s easier to cook rice and buy bread than spend 30 minutes cooking sweet potato.

The orange fleshed potato is a healthy food for all with high dietary fiber which is why we have been working on incorporating sweet potato into snacks but also we have been working on developing steamed and mashed potato puree.

We are still working on the packaging but the idea is that eventually we would like to have puree and all you have to do is heat it up and eat it a convenient product for urban families to use. It is all about being aware of who your consumers are and changing the image.

It’s also a win-win because most African countries, including Rwanda, import vast majority of the wheat flour so why not substitute a significant percentage of orange fleshed sweet potato in their bread and other products put vitamin A in your product and make money for the processor.

In 2009, you spearheaded the 10-year Sweet potato for Profit and Health Initiative. As it nears completion, what can you say of its achievements?

We set a simple goal that people could ascribe to, to try and improve varieties of sweet potato out to as many households as possible and we had six target countries by 2020.

The idea was that if we unite together and share information every year we can track our progress and right now we have about six million households that have been reached.

Our goal is to hit 10 million so we still have a way to go but that good progress means that we have people participating in projects and programs. We have 12 organisations that are committed to this goal and we are encouraging them to put the orange fleshed trait for better health.

Sweet potato has been one of the highly produced crops in Rwanda but with climate change affecting East Africa, how can farmers be facilitated to ensure that the production of sweet potatoes does not lower?

Sweet potato is probably one of the crops better adapted for climate change because it has more flexible harvesting and planting times than a crop like maize. For sweet potato you can stagger a bit or come in late but will still get reasonable production.

I think actually, we are very well positioned for climate change although in general it’s something that is going to necessitate a lot more investment, which we have done to date in water management systems because it’s tougher for people to predict when the rains are truly going to start and how long they are going to last, creating all sorts of uncertainties.

What do you consider as the main challenge in fighting malnutrition in sub Saharan Africa?

I would love to see that people consider nutrition as a basic human right. I think that there should be no child that should leave primary school without fundamental knowledge on good nutritional practices, it shouldn’t just be something that’s done as special training, and it should be integrated into the school system.

Women really should be given access to better services during their pregnancy and we should start working with girls in their teenage years because if you’re healthier before you’re pregnant you’re going to be a healthier mother, it’s all about making nutrition a priority.

I’m impressed that Rwanda and Sierra Leone have made the best progress in reducing malnutrition since 2000. So there is a commitment here and it needs to continue and integrated into the school system.

What should Rwandans expect from the African Potato Association Conference and how is it going to benefit rural farmers?

This is the major meeting in the region every three years, and over 20 African countries will be in attendance.

We will also have researchers and scientists from around the world who will want to come and learn from Africa to look at the progress being made in sweet potato research and also the progress being made in dissemination and uptake of improved varieties, as well as other new technologies that are assisting and improving potato variety chains.

Climate change is going to be an aspect of this as people are increasingly concerned whether food systems must be more sustainable especially in tropical highlands like Rwanda.

There will be an exchange between the farmers and policy makers on what kind of systems are working and are better in integrating farmers.

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