Orange Fleshed Potatoes

As I read a 2001 article by Jan Low et al (1), it points to the orange fleshed beta-carotene rich sweet potatoes replacing the white-fleshed varieties favored by farmers in Africa . It further goes to state that such a move would benefit an estimated 50 million children under the age of 6 who are at the risk of Vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A deficiency continues to pose a challenge in sub-Saharan Africa for both adults and children. Clearly, the impact is much greater in children especially when they are hit by measles.

The probability of at-risk child going blind after a measles attack is quite high and chances of mortality from measles are also drastically increased in vitamin A deficient children. Efforts to save the many young children affected have taken many forms, with the most immediate one being the provision of supplements, often in capsule form or drops in case of very young children. There are countries where such programs go on for years, in that what started off as a short-term measure becomes a long-term program. For example, Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) financed vitamin A supplementation in Tanzania for 25 years.

The need was clearly there as many of these children lived in the mostly arid areas of the country where beta-carotene rich foods could hardly be grown while at the same time, consumption of retinol rich animal foods is beyond the reach of most of the poor households from which the children come.

The orange fleshed sweet potato has been around for a long time. I found it in the USA when I went to study in that country in 1968. In the USA , at the time, it formed part of the diet in many homes, as a vegetable mostly or as a dessert (it makes excellent sweet potato pie or pudding). I was not aware of any efforts to convince people to consume it, but then nor was I aware of vitamin A deficiency as a public health problem in the USA .

What shocked me about this potato was that it was quite dissimilar from the Kenyan, Western Province sweet potato I was used to. The American orange flashed sweet potato was clearly orange, and wet. The sweet potato I knew in Kenya was dry, often white although some varieties were orangish, and fairly sweet. It was being consumed as a supplementary staple, a carbohydrate (not as a vegetable) and with tea, or mashed with beans to provide, a whole meal, sweetish dish. As I continued to stay in the USA and enjoyed their orange-fleshed sweet potato dish, I truly never imagined it could replace the Kenyan sweet potato. As far as I was concerned, the two varieties constituted completely different products, with different uses in the diet.

I have always cautioned against replacement and have instead advocated for addition when I started to attend Harvest Plus meetings several years back. My advice was always that the orange-fleshed sweet potato needed to be promoted as a new product with certain specific health enhancing attributes. As it is, I still enjoy the Kenyan, high-dry matter, white fleshed sweet potato that I have been used to. My palate often craves for it.

All of a sudden, the rural community where I have worked with my NGO, Rural Outreach Program, for the past 15 years has accepted the orange fleshed sweet potato and are now making all kinds of dishes from this type of potato.

The intrusion of the potato into the community did not take much effort and one in fact is bound to worry as to how sustainable it is.

When we have our field days, and have just held, our 13 th one recently, women make juice, cakes, substitute the white potato or banana in traditional dishes, chapati (a favorite pan fried flat bread), scones as snacks for children and so on. In other words, they have come up with new dishes and have modified some to incorporate the orange fleshed sweet potato. The color imparted by the new sweet potato, is attractive to most people; there is no doubt about this. The demand for the flour from these potatoes is in very high demand in the cities because of the perceived health attributes of beta-carotene. In fact, we have had to train the women to prepare the flour for sale in the cities for the urban consumer.

Therefore, unlike the traditional sweet potato, the new potato is a good income earner for poor families. We are also taking the same flour and adding to children's porridge which they are served as a snack while in Pre School . We imagine that this is enriching the porridge in terms of flavor, enhances the color for the children, and imparts bete-carotene to their health.

What of the traditional sweet potato? It is still grown and it is still valued and has its own place in the diets. The question then is, is the orange-fleshed sweet potato have to stay? I hope so but we cannot take this for granted. Planting material needs to be available on a continuous basis and so we are working with the Ministry of Agriculture to identify farmers who can bulk the seed on their farms and make it available to other farmers.

As to the impact of the orange-fleshed sweet potato in my community, I truly have no idea. The reason is that we have not established benchmarks of vitamin A status in the population because the potato was adopted without a baseline survey. And whatever improvements will be reported will be at best qualitative and anecdotal.

We have established baseline anthropometric measurements for 3-8 year olds in preschool centers but this does not include their vitamin A status. It was not practical to do so, for cost considerations as the tests were not budgeted for. However, it is not all lost; one can still take this in the program community and compare it with a control community where the project is not operating. It is my intention to interest a postgraduate student in this type of study.

What is my message here? That it is not necessary to displace a food product just because you wish to introduce a new one similar to it. Most likely in this case, the switch over will be organic, without being forced, and may be both types of potato will co-exist.

A second view is that even without over emphasizing the vitamin A attributes, the orange- flavored sweet potato has other attributes over the traditional sweet potato which can market it, at the same time imparts bete-carotene, which is a valuable nutrient in this community.

Finally, we underrate the poor. They are not as ignorant as we might think. They know a good thing when it is well explained to them. In my Butere community, the sweet potato arrived and has had impact without my serious intervention.

You are all welcome to one of the field days we organize in Butere, Western Province , Kenya . Just contact me if you are interested, you can also contact me if you are interested to sponsor as, to student study this whole issue.

Well, politics may also have helped it as we have an orange movement on right now, which is advocating for major political reforms and happens to be popular in Western Kenya .

Enjoy this issue.

Ruth Oniang'o, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

1. Low J, Walker T and R Hijmans The potential impact of orange-flavored sweet potatoes on vitamin A intake in sub-Saharan Africa, paper presented at a regional workshop on food-based approaches to human nutritional deficiencies 2001- A project CIP.

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