The sweet surprise of sweet potatoes

Can this humble tuber boost nutrition, improve maternal health, AND create new economic opportunities for women?

It’s lunch time at Margaret Simiyu’s house, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are on the menu.

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In Western Kenya, Margaret Simiyu holds her son, Jason, while listening to a community health worker discuss the nutritional benefits of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. Photo credit: Eric Becker/ PATH

Three dozen mothers and children sit outside Margaret’s mud-walled home in Western Kenya, where a community health worker is talking about the powerful nutritional punch packed inside this unassuming vegetable.

Margaret, 38, needs little convincing. She’s already seen the health benefits since she started cultivating orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and serving them to her family — along with some bonus benefits she never expected.

Linking agriculture and nutrition

Margaret is one of nearly 3,000 women in Western Kenya participating in an innovative project called Mama SASHA (Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa). The five-year project aims to boost the health and nutrition of pregnant women and young children by linking nutrition education, sweet potato cultivation, and antenatal care.

Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene that the body can convert into vitamin A. Some 43 million children under age five in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to significant rates of blindness, disease, and premature death. PATH is partnering on the project with the International Potato Center, along with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, the Kenyan ministries of health and agriculture, Community Research in Environment and Development Initiatives, Appropriate Rural Development Agriculture Programme, the University of Toronto, and Emory University.

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Margaret was two months pregnant when a health worker dropped by her house last year to discuss the importance of a healthy diet, including the need to get enough vitamin A. By going to the local health clinic for prenatal care, Margaret could get vouchers to redeem with local farmers for sweet potato vines to grow her own orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

Margaret visited the clinic for prenatal care earlier and more often than she had during earlier pregnancies, driven by the desire to get vine cuttings to plant. Each time, the nurse talked with her about good nutrition and how to incorporate sweet potatoes into the family’s diet. An agricultural adviser made home visits to offer planting and growing tips.

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Margaret Simiyu recently expanded her plot of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and plans to begin selling them in her community. Photo credit: PATH/Eric Becker.

Serving up better health

“When I first tasted them, it was really nice,” Margaret says. She was instructed by health workers to prepare the sweet potatoes with clean utensils and in front of her husband. Gaining the support of men, the primary landholders in most families, is essential to the project’s success. Margaret now serves sweet potatoes to her family three times a week, often in a rich stew made with avocado, ground nuts and milk.

Her seven-month-old baby, Jason, sits on Margaret’s lap as she tells the story, a bright-eyed bundle in a pink blanket. Jason was born at a healthy 8 ½ pounds, has never been sick, and started crawling earlier than her older children, she says. Even Jason’s older siblings seem to get sick less often now.

Spotting an opportunity

Here’s the sweetest surprise of all: This month, Margaret plans to start selling sweet potatoes to earn sorely needed income for the household. She and her husband even pulled out some of their corn to expand their sweet potato plot and meet the expected demand.

From her small patch of sweet potatoes, Margaret could get up to 600 pounds of roots worth up to US $140. Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are ready for harvest in about three to four months—less than the 5 and a half to 6 months required for the less-nutritional white and yellow varieties commonly available in Western Kenya to mature.

Spreading the word

All of this has made Margaret into something of a sweet potato evangelist. She encourages neighbors and friends to add sweet potatoes to their diets. Community health workers also spread the word through more than 200 local mothers’ clubs like the one that meets at Margaret’s house every month.

At the nearby community health center, nurse Eileen Barasa distributes vine vouchers to pregnant women. Since the Mama SASHA project began, Barasa says connections between the clinic and the community have grown stronger. In-facility births and immunization rates are up, eye and skin infections are down, and women come to the clinic earlier for prenatal care.
“Even some of the men are coming now without their wives to ask for vines,” Barasa says. “It’s a hook, and then we can offer them so many other things.”

-Jolayne Houtz, Editor, PATH