Ugandans’ scramble for orange fleshed sweet potatoes change farmers’ fortunes

uganda-orange-flesh-sweet-potatoOver 55,000 Ugandan farmers are reaping profits and improving family health from growing Orange fleshed sweet potato as demand across the country intensifies due to the crop’s superior nutrients especially vitamin A.

Under the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health program spearheaded by HarvestPlus a part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the project is part of a move aimed at saving over 40 million children under the age of five in Africa affected by insufficient vitamin A.  In Uganda Vitamin A deficiency killed 15,800 children in 2009 according to UNICEF.

The country’s high dependence on sweet potato positioned it to be a preferred choice for piloting new breeds of the bio-fortified potato variety. “Uganda was selected to pilot Orange fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) breeding and dissemination because sweet potato is grown by over 44 per cent of Ugandan farmers and is the fourth most important staple food in the country,” noted Anna-Marie Ball, HarvestPlus country manager for Uganda.  The programme hopes to net 300,000 farmers.

Charles Musoke, a Seed Systems specialist working with HarvestPlus Uganda, explained that the orange-fleshed sweet potato is a cross-breed with local potato varieties. In addition to addressing vitamin A deficiencies, it is as sweet as the indigenous white sweet potato, and has high and fast-maturing yields.

“We are multiplying the seeds of already proven superior qualities and distributing them to farmers,” he added. USAID is working in Uganda to improve household nutrition and agricultural livelihoods through production and consumption of these bio-fortified sweet potatoes through provision of the necessary logistical support. Bio-fortification aims to reduce micronutrient deficiency through traditional breeding of certain crops that contain higher levels of essential micronutrients.

Extension officers from Harvestplus are working with a number of stakeholders in the sector to ensure its adoption. “We have incorporated most schools to grow the potato and also carried awareness campaigns with farmer groups traders among others on the nutritional benefits of the variety,” explained Ball. USAID is working in Uganda to improve household nutrition and agricultural livelihoods through production and consumption of these bio-fortified sweet potatoes. Bio-fortification aims to reduce micronutrient deficiency through traditional breeding of certain crops that contain higher levels of essential micronutrients.

Latest statistics from the International Potato Center indicate that OFSP is an important source of beta-carotene, an indication of vitamin A. Just 125 grams of a fresh sweet potato root from most orange-fleshed varieties contains enough beta-carotene to provide the body’s daily need for vitamin A needs.

According to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, Vitamin A deficiency is a significant health concern in the country, impacting 38 per cent of children aged six months to 59 months and 36 per cent of women age 15 to 49 years.

The deficiency is rampant in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting 43 million children under age 5, and contributing to high rates of blindness, disease and premature death in children and pregnant women. Lack of vitamin A also impedes children’s growth, increases their vulnerability to disease, and contributes to poor immune function and maternal death. Therefore according to Ball, the adoption of the new potato variety will mitigate against such cases that sometimes become fatal.