Case study

Super spuds help beat hidden hunger in Uganda

New varieties of sweet potato help children grow up to be healthy in Uganda

Agnes Kalya shows off her thriving sweet potato plants. Picture: HarvestPlus
Agnes Kalya shows off her thriving sweet potato plants. Picture: HarvestPlus

Almost 1 in 3 of the world’s poorest children cannot reach their full potential due to malnutrition.

As the Olympics close, Prime Minister David Cameron and Vice President Michel Temer of Brazil will host a Global Hunger Event to call on the world to take the action needed to transform the life chances of millions of children before the next Olympic Games in 2016.

Read our case study below to find out how new varieties of sweet potato will provide more than 840,000 people in Africa with the vitamin A they need before the start of Rio 2016.

Agnes Kalya, a farmer from Ntove Village, Uganda, smiles with pride as she puts her arms round her youngest child, Maria. “My daughter is almost four years old and I have seen her grow at a rate I have never witnessed in my other kids. And they used to need to go to the hospital regularly, but now all are very healthy”.

Hidden hunger

Agnes and her children are benefiting from the introduction of new varieties of sweet potato that provide a daily dose of vitamin A, and which farmers like Agnes can grow themselves. Agnes’ children were among the estimated two billion people across the world who suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ - a lack of vital vitamins and minerals that they are unable to get from their limited diet.

Around 32% of children under five in Africa have such low levels of vitamin A that they are at huge risk of illness, poor vision, and even blindness. Distributing vitamin A capsules works, but it doesn’t address the root cause of vitamin A deficiency. This is where the new sweet potato varieties come in.

The improved crop was developed by Robert Mwanga, a Ugandan breeder, with support from a international research programme called HarvestPlus. UK aid is one of the main donors providing funds to global research efforts like this. It is helping to tackle malnutrition head on, not simply by helping to increase the quantity of food produced, but by ensuring that the food is high in the nutrients essential to children’s development.  

Super spuds

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

HarvestPlus supported research into breeding improved varieties of sweet potato that would overcome this drawback. The new varieties retain the sweet potato’s existing benefits, but have the added advantage of being high in vitamin A. Their telltale orange colour - when most African varieties are white or yellow - highlights this higher vitamin A content. 

Reaching those in need

HarvestPlus and their partners ran workshops with farmers like Agnes to explain why foods rich in vitamin A are so important to good health. They then handed out sweet potato vines and provided training on how to grow them.

Agnes was one of the first farmers to adopt these new sweet potato varieties. Using the sweet potato vines she received, she soon expanded her quarter-acre patch of farmland to two acres.

Hidden benefits

Growing sweet potatoes has led to other improvements for Agnes and her family. With the income she receives from selling her surplus crop, Agnes has been able to contribute money towards her children’s education for the first time.

She now earns a daily income of 20,000 to 30,000 Ugandan shillings (US$9-$13) and has plans to expand her business further.

Growing success 

More than 24,000 families in Uganda and Mozambique received the improved sweet potatoes from a HarvestPlus led project between 2007 and 2009.

Children and mothers in households that grew the potatoes increased their vitamin A intake - sometimes by as much as 100%.

HarvestPlus will now introduce these crops to 75,000 new households in Uganda over a five-year period. They expect this to increase to at least 225,000 households as families share the crop with their neighbours.

Plans for the future 

The International Potato Center (CIP), also supported by UK aid, is taking the sweet potato story even further.

Two years ago, they started a ten-year initiative to improve the lives of 10 million households across 17 African countries by encouraging the adoption of the improved sweet potato varieties.

In Mozambique, with USAID support, they will be distributing new, more drought-tolerant, orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties to 120,000 households over the next two years.

UK aid - making an impact

Results like these show the lasting impact that UK aid funded research can have in tackling malnutrition before it’s too late. By giving access to knowledge as well as seeds, we are helping families to grow enough food to eat and to generate an income.

Facts and stats

Nearly two billion people across the world face ‘hidden hunger’: their diets lack one or more important micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron or iodine, putting them at serious risk of health and development problems.

Hidden hunger is often a direct result of rising food prices: more nutritious foods, such as meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, are cut out in favour of cereals and grain, which offer fewer nutrients, but are far more affordable.

HarvestPlus is a key programme of CGIAR, (a global agricultural research system that receives UK aid), supported by the International Potato Center, the Ugandan government, and several other partner and donor organisations.

The Consultative Group for Agricultural Research (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.

Published 6 August 2012