This post is by Sylvia Magezi, HarvestPlus Country Manager in Uganda.
I grew up on the countryside in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. To this day, I still encourage my own children to spend time at the farm, learning about the importance of agriculture and our family’s tradition and culture. At the same time, I am proud to work on the cutting edge of agricultural innovation that particularly addresses a nutrition problem, spending the past decade promoting the adoption of an exciting new staple crop: orange sweet potatoes.
Why is this so important? Vitamin A deficiency remains a serious problem here in Uganda and other developing countries. Without it, a child’s immune system is left vulnerable to deadly infectious diseases like measles and diarrhea. Vitamin A deficiency is also the main cause of preventable childhood blindness in developing countries, where almost half a million children lose their sight each year. Organizations like Helen Keller International and UNICEF have done excellent work to tackle this problem by providing vitamin supplements to needy children. Foods that have been industrially fortified with micronutrients are also making a difference. However, even after all this, millions of children from low-income rural families who subsist on the food they grow often find these health-giving tools are out of reach. Biofortification becomes a suitable intervention for these families and complements those other efforts in addressing vitamin A deficiency.
Thanks to ONE and many other partners, we have been able to raise awareness and support for these potatoes, a great source of vitamin A. For several years, mothers have told us that their children are healthier after eating these more nutritious sweet potatoes. They measure this by seeing their sons and daughters play happily and eat well. Mothers also report that their children need fewer visits to the clinic. And now, we have exciting new scientific data to confirm these mothers’ wisdom.
A new study demonstrates that children under five were 42% less likely to suffer from diarrhea if they had eaten high vitamin A orange sweet potato within the previous week. For children under three, the likelihood of having diarrhea was reduced by more than half. Diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death for kids in developing countries, so this is a big deal. The scientific explanation? Cells in your digestive system need vitamin A to protect you from invading germs. These cells are replaced every few days, so when vitamin A is available, it quickly moves to the digestive tract to help protect the body.
These mothers are also farmers, and they appreciate the sweet potatoes for other reasons. These “biofortified” crops, developed using conventional breeding techniques, do not require extra water or fertilizer, and they cost the same to produce as regular white varieties. Farmer-to-farmer sharing of biofortified sweet potato vines has continued to expand as the word spreads about their benefits. 27 countries have approved cultivation of these and other new biofortified crop varieties, such as rice, wheat, beans and maize. 43 more countries are in the process of doing so.
As a mother, a farmer, a researcher and a Ugandan, I am excited to be part of this innovative and cost-effective approach to addressing malnutrition. This is truly a global movement, with ten million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America already growing and eating these nutritious foods. We are scaling up to reach millions more in the years ahead. Together, we can help people around the world lead healthier and more productive lives.
Sylvia Magezi holds an M.Sc in Applied Human Nutrition and B.Sc in Food Science and Technology. Before joining HarvestPlus, she worked as a research officer monitoring food and nutrition security projects. Prior to that, she worked with UNICEF as a nutrition consultant involved in supporting micronutrient programs – vitamin A supplementation and salt iodization – in collaboration with the Ugandan Ministry of Health.