Case study

Healthy babies are sweet thanks to powerful potatoes

How biofortified sweet potatoes are keeping pregnant women and young children healthy in Kenya

Metrine and her husband Matayo feed their 8-month-old son sweet potato. Picture: HarvestPlus
Metrine and her husband Matayo feed their baby son sweet potato. Picture: HarvestPlus

It’s mid-morning in Minyali village, Bungoma North district, Kenya. 38 year-old Metrine Matayo and her husband Matayo Khisa are on their farm harvesting orange fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) to prepare lunch for the family.

Metrine pulls a medium size root of sweet potato from the soil and places it on a heap of sweet potatoes nearby. With her husband she collects the harvested sweet potatoes into a basket and heads back to the house.

Matayo explains where all the sweet potatoes have come from: “My wife attended a church meeting in the village where she received information from one of the members about the Mama SASHA project,” he says.

“The project aims to help pregnant women and young children stay healthy. My wife was told that women who visited Ndalu Health Centre for Antenatal Care services could receive vouchers to get vines for planting.

“She was 2 months pregnant at the time and I advised her to go to the health facility the following day. She came home with a pair of vouchers that enabled us to get 100 cuttings of Vita sweet potato and 100 cuttings of Kabode sweet potato from a neighbour.”

Handing 8-month-old baby Emmanuel to her husband, Metrine carries on preparing lunch and continues the story: “I received another pair of vouchers during my second and third visits, when I was in my second and third trimesters,” she says.

“I also started propagating from the original cuttings. That is why we have a lot of sweet potatoes on our farm.”

The power of biofortified potatoes

Widely eaten in Africa, sweet potatoes are easy to grow, drought and disease tolerant, and provide a great source of energy. Unfortunately, traditional African varieties are usually low in vitamin A. 

A lack of vitamin A can contribute to blindness, disease and premature death in young children and pregnant women. But thankfully the sweet potatoes that Metrine and Matayo are growing are special.

With support from UK aid through core funding to The Consultative Group for Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the International Potato Centre and HarvestPlus have harnessed the power of biofortification to create a sweet potato that is high in vitamin A - the orange fleshed sweet potato. Just one of these potatoes can supply the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, which can transform the lives of people like Metrine, Matayo and their children. 

In western Kenya, the Mama SASHA project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on promoting the consumption of this new variety of sweet potato among pregnant women, infants, and very young children.

During prenatal care visits at local healthcare facilities, pregnant women like Metrine receive nutrition counselling and vouchers that they can redeem for 200 cuttings of orange fleshed sweet potato vines. The idea is to encourage mothers to get the health care they need and increase consumption of the nutrition-filled orange fleshed sweet potato at the same time.

Potato pride

Back in Metrine and Matayo’s kitchen the food is ready and Metrine uses it to prepare a meal of orange fleshed sweet potato and avocado for baby Emmanuel.

“I learnt how to feed myself, my baby and how to prepare orange fleshed sweet potato using different recipes from nutrition counselling at the clinic and after attending the farmers’ field day that was supported by Mama SASHA project,” says Metrine.

“The knowledge I gained helped me eat a balanced diet during pregnancy - I gained weight steadily, never got sick during pregnancy and gave birth to a baby weighing 3.1kgs. I am proud to be part of the sweet potato project.”

Facts and stats

Almost 1 in 3 of the world’s poorest children cannot reach their full potential due to under nutrition and a third of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition. Children under 5 years of age are worst affected, with around 171 million being chronically malnourished because of poor diet and repeated infections.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 40 million children under the age of 5 years are at risk of vitamin A deficiency. 

HarvestPlus and its partners distributed OFSP to more than 24,000 rural farming households in Uganda and Mozambique from 2007-2009. Total vitamin A intakes among children and women increased significantly in both countries. For children aged 6-35 months, OFSP contributed 78% of their total vitamin A intake in Mozambique and 53% in Uganda.

The International Potato Centre, HarvestPlus and their partners will provide more than 840,000 people in Africa with the vitamin A they need over the next 4 years.

HarvestPlus and International Potato Centre are both funded by UK aid through core funding to CGIAR (a global agricultural research system).

CGIAR brings together funding organisations with research centres that specialise in agriculture and sustainable development. As a founding member, DFID has provided uninterrupted support to the group’s international research centres since 1971.

The MAMA Sasha project is implemented by CIP, an international health NGO, PATH, and two Kenya agricultural NGOs, CREADIS and ARDAP. PATH’s field offficer, Ellah Kedera conducted the interview for this story.

Published 10 August 2012