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Orange: the colour of VITAA-lity

Electricity in the Kyebando district of Kampala in Uganda is unreliable, and Thomas Bukenya is taking no chances; his business is on the line. "It's smoky", he says, weaving between five big cooking pans simmering with hot oil on earthen ovens, and shouting over the noise. "But you can't have electricity here because you need to keep the temperature at 165 degrees," he adds. The hot oil is frying sweet potatoes into crisps, or potato chips, and a constant temperature is vital. Bukenya is Director of Tomchris Enterprises, a small scale snacks manufacturer which has decided to try something different, to promote healthier snacks.

Orange fleshed sweet potato roots in the field (CIP)

It's not that crisps are particularly healthy. In fact, the British Heart Foundation has recently warned that children who eat a packet of crisps a day, could be consuming almost five litres of cooking oil each year. But, by substituting Irish potatoes with beta-carotene-rich, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, the crisps are a more nutritious - if not an entirely healthy - snack option.

Tomchris Enterprises is one of many manufacturers being targeted by organisations such as The International Potato Centre (CIP) and PRAPACE (a French acronym for the Regional Network for the Improvement of Potato and Sweetpotato in East and Central Africa), to promote orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. The reason for its high nutritional content lies in its colour; the orange pigment in sweet potato, carrots and other vegetables, is produced by the nutrient beta-carotene, which the body uses to produce vitamin A. Increasing vitamin A consumption is a major health priority. Among the afflictions of malnutrition, VAD, or vitamin A deficiency, is one of the most prevalent, yet one of the most treatable public health problems in sub-Saharan Africa. Untreated, it leads to blindness in children; weakens the immune system, and poses a significant health risk to pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Vitamin A for Africa: VITAA

In the first food-based approach towards fighting VAD, CIP together with about 40 other organisations launched the Vitamin A Partnership for Africa (VITAA) in 2001, a programme to encourage farmers in East and Central Africa, to cultivate and eat orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. Dr Regina Kapinga, VITAA co-ordinator, has been eager to introduce the initiative in schools. "Everybody screamed about the colour, because they were used to the white type of sweet potato. Fortunately children are fed sweet potato from a young age, so we assured children and mothers of the nutritional status of orange-fleshed varieties," she says.

The programme has established demonstration plots in agricultural research institutes, to multiply and disseminate new varieties of the vitamin A-enriched sweet potato. By the end of 2004, an estimated two million Ugandans were eating the new varieties, and VITAA in collaboration with other partners had distributed about 30 million cuttings of mainly orange-fleshed sweet potato. The varieties provide a record measure of beta-carotene nutrients. "You don't have to stuff your child with sweet potato. Just 100 grams for any child under the age of two, is enough to provide the required daily allowance of vitamin A," stresses Kapinga.

Money talks

Various products from orange fleshed sweet potato (CIP)
Various products from orange fleshed sweet potato
CIP

Enhanced nutrition is a good reason to grow new varieties of sweet potato. Besides being rich in vitamin A, orange-fleshed sweet potato is also a good source of vitamin C, natural sugars and carbohydrates. But, as Kapinga knows, farmers will not cultivate a crop for its nutritional value alone. "These farmers have financial difficulties. If you want this to take root, you have to create marketing opportunities," she emphasises. And making the orange-fleshed variety of sweet potato a mainstream crop is a challenge, especially as it is generally regarded as a woman's crop, often grown on marginal land for family use and supplementary income.

Tomchris Enterprises demonstrates where the marketing future for new varieties of sweet potato could lie. Constance Owori, a post-harvest technologist at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) in Uganda, says, "When farmers sell one kilogram of fresh crops, they earn something like $1. But when they process it and turn it into chips, they earn $4." While fruits and vegetables can be unavailable or expensive for urban consumers, new varieties of sweet potato can be grown easily, and are affordable.

Child with orange fleshed sweet potato Tanzania (CIP)
Child with orange fleshed sweet potato Tanzania
CIP

The VITAA programme has been most effective in Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania, but even in countries that are not major sweet potato growers, such as Ethiopia, new varieties are being promoted. Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Joachim von Braun, advises that although not a silver bullet for curing malnutrition, the VITAA experience provides "concrete evidence of the effectiveness of food-based approaches in tackling micro-nutrient malnutrition."

Bukenya's business has grown since its humble beginnings in 1992, now producing on average ten large sacks of crisps every day; quite an achievement for a small enterprise. And apart from providing urban employment, enterprises like this offer farmers in the rural areas a good source of income. And the fruits of this success are visible - locally produced, orange-fleshed sweet potato crisps are now on display in the supermarkets of Kampala.

Date published: January 2007

 

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