By MARIA ANDRADE, This is Africa.
2016 has been a challenging year for much of Africa, yet many countries have proven more resilient. What is their secret? Many factors come into play, but improving nutrition certainly plays a part.
According to a recent report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, countries that made significant investments in agriculture over the past decade saw their farm productivity and GDP grow much more than countries that did not.
These investments help reduce hunger and malnutrition, which are currently an unnecessary drain on the economy. AGRA estimates that child mortality associated with malnutrition has reduced national workforces by as much as 13 percent.
If we are going to eliminate malnutrition on the continent, we need smart ways to do it. I have spent the past two decades developing and promoting nutritionally enhanced, orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties in Mozambique.
I have seen how these humble roots can save lives and improve livelihoods. They also provide a model for others to follow.
The sweet potato is ideal for farmers with little or marginally productive land. They produce more calories per hectare than maize or wheat, in less time. They are relatively drought tolerant, so they can help communities recover from natural disasters.
People can eat the leaves, which are good sources of vitamins, three months after planting. The roots are ready to harvest after just four months. Orange-fleshed varieties are rich in beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A, making it an excellent option for helping Africa’s 58 million malnourished children.
Vitamin A deficiencies cause an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind each year. Deficiencies also increases the risk of disease and infections in children, maternal mortality and night blindness among pregnant women. For a child, just 125 grams of orange-fleshed sweet potato can combat this.
This is can only spell good news for Africa’s poor and national economies. Africa already has the youngest population on that planet. Children spared from malnutrition can become productive adults.
The burden of hidden hunger should not hinder their success, and the economic success they could bring to their nations.
If vitamin A deficiency is the problem, why not just use a vitamin supplement? So far efforts to get those capsules into the stomachs of children in Africa’s remote communities are not always sustainable.
By contrast once farmers are equipped to plant sweet potato as a food and cash crop – and learn about its health benefits – their children are more likely to meet their daily vitamin A requirement month after month.
The self-sufficiency that results from growing one’s own nutritious food also empowers farmers. This self-reliance can open doors to creating businesses, as the demand for biofortfied food increases.
In Mozambique, Luis Zicai, a widower with four children, had trouble making ends meet until he heard about the demand for sweet potato vines. He began by multiplying and selling vines to 500 households, earning more than he did from all of his other crop sales combined.
The following season he doubled his planting area and doubled his income.
When contracted to supply 12 tonnes of vines to a developmental organisation, he mobilised other vine multipliers in his area – creating a booming business for the whole community.
Sweet potato is increasingly no longer grown for home consumption only. It is also sold at market, paving the way for entirely new businesses. Bakeries that use orange-flesh sweet potato as an ingredient are springing up across the country.
Building on this success, the International Potato Center together with partners has accelerated the development of new sweet potato varieties in nine African countries, releasing 40 biofortified orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties over the past six years.
We also test and train farmers in growing and storage methods, while educating the public about the sweet potato’s benefits and catalysing new markets for the crop. These efforts have helped 2.2 million farm households so far, and they are being scaled to reach 10 million households by 2020.
Our work with sweet potato is just one example of how biofortified crops can reduce malnutrition. Comparable efforts are underway with potato, cassava, rice and other crops.
But sweet potato’s runaway success illustrates the potential that investments in agricultural research and crop diversification have for stimulating economic growth and improving life for rural families. Maria Andrade is 2016 recipient of the annual World Food Prize.