Sweet Potato: Africa Making Life-Saving Push To Improve Nutrition With Simple Tuber

Sweet potatoes in Africa are more than just a side dish at Thanksgiving.

Due to the efforts of public health efforts who see the benefits of the vitamin A-rich tubers, the more nutrient-rich orange sweet potato in Africa is an important staple of the diet for millions of impoverished people, NPR reported. Though many farmers already grow sweet potatoes in Africa, health officials are pushing for them to switch to the orange version with more vitamin A rather than the yellow or white versions they primarily grow now.

As NPR notes, this approach is known as biofortification. The effort would add crucial nutrients to food by breeding better versions of the crops that are already a staple of the diet for poor people.

The sweet potato Africa push came in part from Horwath Bouis, NPR noted. He is an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. As director of an international effort known as HarvestPlus, Bouis said the idea of biofortification came after studies found that many vitamins were lacking from the diet of Africans.

The sweet potato Africa project is also being led by Sweetpotato Profit and Health Initiative — a 10-year, multi-donor effort that has both nutritional and economic goals. The organization aims to reduce child malnutrition as well as improve smallholder incomes by promoting the use of sweet potatoes in Africa.

By 2020, Sweetpotato Profit and Health Initiative aims to “improve the lives of 10 million African households, achieving an annual value of $241 million in additional production in 17 African countries,” the organization’s site noted.

The nutrition deficit was so extreme that just giving malnourished children a vitamin A capsule every six months slashed the death rate among these children by 25 percent.

“This number really astounded the nutrition community,” says Bouis. “Then they started looking at iron and zinc and iodine deficiencies. They discovered that these micronutrients make a huge difference in people’s health.”

Though the sweet potato Africa push is taking place now, it will likely be years before researchers will know if this effort is a success, NPR reported.