An ode to orange

How African communities are making sweet potatoes look good

I arrived in the village of Nhazombe, Mozambique, in the middle of an orange mania. A troupe of women draped in bright orange cloth came dancing down the main road. They were singing an Ode to Orange:

Growing Sweet Potatoes in Tanzania
A farmer selling sweet potatoes in Tanzania

“Always give orange sweet potatoes to your children if you love them. They are good for their health,” they sang.

They wore the green tendrils of sweet potato vines in their hair. “The orange sweet potato gives us better breast milk for our children,” they continued singing. “We grow the orange sweet potato. It is good for our health!”

It was an effective marketing jingle. The message was unmistakable: Orange equals health.

Particularly the orange-flesh sweet potato, the object of their ardor.

Rich in vitamin A, the orange sweet potato is emerging as a superhero in the fight against malnutrition; it is a symbol of ONE’s Thrive campaign to boost investment in projects designed to increase production of Africa’s smallholder farmers and to improve the nutritional quality of their food. Tens of millions of children in Africa suffer from blindness, stunted growth and weakened immune systems because of severe vitamin A deficiency.

TAKE ACTION: Help ensure children grow up into healthy, productive adults. Sign our petition to end global child malnutrition today.

For many years, though, the virtues of the humble orange potato remained, well, underground in Africa. The problem was that potatoes in most parts of the continent had been white or yellowish. Who eats orange food? “Yuck,” was the response of most children, and their parents, when presented with a plate of orange wedges.

Thus, attempt after attempt to introduce the orange sweet potato failed. Crops were harvested and then spoiled while waiting for customers. “If you grow it they will eat it” wasn’t true.

Eventually, a group of sweet potato boosters –- Harvest Plus, the International Potato Center, World Vision and Helen Keller International, working together in Mozambique -– realized a market needed to grow along with the food. They altered the standard practice of agricultural development in Africa — produce first, sell later –- and set out to create the demand as well as the supply. They crafted the “orange is healthy” sales pitch. Scientists and aid workers donned orange T-shirts and painted their truck orange. They launched on orange offensive.

That’s what I drove into when I visited northern Mozambique, near the Malawi border, several years ago as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. I marveled at the orange crush in Nhazombe, then proceeded to the village of Milange. It had also been painted orange. I describe the scene in the book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:

“Right here, the healthy sweet!,” shouted Eusebio Costa, a vendor in the central market of Milange.

Waking up to health
A child eats a sweet potato

“This potato is healthy! It helps prevent disease!,” bellowed his partner, Agustin Nkhwangwa.

The two hawkers wore orange baseball caps sporting a logo of a sweet-potato stick figure riding a bike. They stood inside a new concrete kiosk glowing in bright-orange paint. Out front was an orange sign: “We sell the orange sweet potato. Rich in vitamin A.”

Community theater groups clad in orange roamed the area, popularizing the orange potato through drama and comedy. Radio ads stressed the need for better nutrition. Orange murals painted on walls depicted families gathering to eat orange sweet potatoes. Orange became the color of health and good nutrition…

The orange campaign was working…The Milange region was awash in orange food: orange sweet potato fries, orange rolls, orange cake, orange sweet potato juice. The singing ladies of Nhazombe chirped of their favorite recipes: sweet potato porridge, sweet potatoes and eggs, sweet potatoes and coconut milk, sweet potatoes and peanuts.

Beyond the market, I met a farmer named Tomas Gastin who had seen a performance of the orange theater troupe. And in that performance he also saw the future. Orange sweet potatoes, Gastin came to believe, were the next big thing. He cleared an extra acre of land on his small farm and began cultivating orange sweet potatoes alongside his cabbage, onions, lettuce and corn. After his first harvest, he sold 1,100 pounds of sweet potatoes. And still the market clamored for more. So he cleared a couple more acres.

“It’s a gold mine,” he told me with wonder in his eyes.

An orange mine, actually. For the farmers, the market vendors, and especially, for the malnourished children.

Orange is healthy. Pass it on.

Help ensure that children get a healthy start in life. Sign our petition to end global child malnutrition now.

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Read more of Roger Thurow’s columns here:

Listen to the farmers!
The Olympic feat of ending global hunger
Let’s pay attention this time