Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes—like these propagated by a Kenyan farmer—may improve nutrition. Photo: PATH/Carol Levin.
The orange-fleshed sweetpotato brings Kenyan communities together to reduce under-nutrition and poverty
What’s so important about the color orange? In a sweetpotato, orange could mean the difference between malnutrition and health for an African child. The secret of that sunset color? Beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A.
In Kenya, the Mama SASHA (Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa) project is unlocking the secret of these sweetpotatoes by linking agriculture with health care. Pregnant women are leaving prenatal visits with an unusual prescription: a voucher for orange-fleshed sweetpotato vines that they can redeem from local farmers so they can grow their own nutritious tubers.
Better health on the menu
Sweetpotatoes are easy to grow and drought- and disease-tolerant. But in Kenya, people eat the white and yellow varieties, which are low in vitamin A. Millions of children in Africa are at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness, disease, and premature death. Adding orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes to the mix can help to protect them.
At eight-year-old Pauline’s house, nutrition-packed sweetpotatoes are on the menu three times a week. She likes them best in a stew with avocado, ground nuts, and milk. Her mother, Margaret, values knowing that the orange flesh is providing her children with vitamin A, calories, and energy to help them fight disease and grow up healthy.
Margaret learned about the new variety when she was two months pregnant with Pauline’s little brother. A health worker visited to talk about the importance of a healthy diet and the need to get enough vitamin A. He encouraged Margaret to go to the clinic for sweetpotato vouchers and prenatal care.
Inspired, Margaret visited the clinic for prenatal care earlier and more often than she had in previous pregnancies. The nurse talked with her about good nutrition while an agricultural adviser made home visits to offer growing tips. Soon, orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes were adding critical nutrients to family meals.
Linking agriculture and health
Margaret is one of thousands of women in western Kenya participating in Mama SASHA, which is a collaborative effort between PATH and the International Potato Center. Community health workers have spread the word door-to-door and through more than 200 local mothers’ clubs. More than five times the number of women originally targeted have enrolled.
Combining agriculture and prenatal care is an innovative approach. In fact, this is the first project of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, and we aim to provide solid evidence of its effectiveness. When the project ends, impact evaluations will have assessed whether there were significant changes in the consumption of vitamin-A rich foods and the use of pre- and postnatal care, and whether these changes resulted in improved health for mothers and children.
A thriving garden and community
Health workers and participants like Margaret are already convinced. Margaret’s baby was born at a healthy 8 ½ pounds and has never been sick. And while Pauline has seen more than her fair share of illness, she and her siblings now seem to be healthier, too.
At the nearby community health center, Nurse Eileen Barasa says she’s seeing fewer underweight children and fewer eye and skin infections associated with vitamin A deficiency. Women are coming more often for prenatal care, and their visits provide an opportunity to immunize children, do HIV testing, and offer malaria prevention.
“It’s a hook,” Eileen says, “and then we can offer them so many other things.”