By Colleen Walton
It was only a few years ago that sweet potato fries took our taste buds by storm, and most of us have never looked back. In the global context, orange sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse, with very high levels of beta-carotene which is converted into vitamin A in our bodies. Recognizing the potential, in the late 1990s, the U.S. and Canadian governments funded a large project in Uganda to develop varieties of orange sweet potatoes (OSP) that grow well in east Africa.
The traditional sweet potato grown in Kenya and much of east Africa has white flesh and is a poor cousin, nutritionally, to the orange-flesh varieties. Vitamin A deficiencies are common among women and children in these countries, and result in people being more vulnerable to common illnesses, such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea.
Enter Farmers Helping Farmers!
In 2007, FHF coordinator Shaad Olingo sought varieties of OSP cuttings that would grow well where our partner groups farmed. And so the new tradition of growing OSP began. Today, OSP are thriving in women’s kitchen gardens and school screenhouse gardens throughout FHF’s project areas in northern Meru County.
Production was only the first step of the task. To gain the full benefit, OSP had to also be incorporated into families’ diets. Now, changing food habits is not something that comes easily to people – I suspect we all have some of those ‘meat and potato’ eaters in our families.
Beginning in 2010, with this food culture understanding in hand, FHF partnered with students and faculty from UPEI’s Foods and Nutrition program to work with women in Kenya and develop culturally acceptable ways to add OSP into the daily foods.
These efforts were enhanced in 2020, when Global Affairs Canada support helped fund the addition of a Kenyan nutritionist, James Mureithi, to our team of dedicated Kenyan staff. James has been “cooking up a storm” with individual and small groups of women to demonstrate how to prepare OSP in ways that gets this nutritious tuber out of the gardens and onto the plates of all family members. And what better way to get this message across than though taste testing (it works for Costco!)
In 13 years, this work has moved research into bettering the everyday lives of hundreds of farm families and thousands of schoolchildren – improving their nutrition and thus their health and resilience.
FHF is learning as we go – continuing to build on our partnerships with UPEI, women’s groups and schools, and to draw on the strengths and skills of our staff and volunteers to identify and encourage other new crops and techniques.
Stay tuned for those stories!