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Power of Sweet Potatoes: Tanzanian Women Build Vitamin-A Enterprise

Published: Wednesday, 10 May 2017
Author: Katie Deska
Department: Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

Introduced to Sub-Saharan Africa as a crop that could alleviate vitamin A deficiency, especially common in women and children, the orange-fleshed sweet potato is a biofortified intervention that adds nutritional value to the community, while at the same time spawns economic activity and empowerment among rural women.

"We now see that women growing the orange-fleshed sweet potato are able to make more money, a small level of increase of income, and most importantly, have vitamin A-rich food," said Channa Prakash, of Tuskegee University, who partnered with Theobald Mosha, of Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), to train Tanzanian women in food processing, product development and business management activities associated with the unique sweet potato variety. Supporting entrepreneurship with seed money from the Global Center for Food Systems for Innovation, researchers helped 200 women establish a network of Village Community Banks (VICOBA), purchase processing equipment, and learn about food safety, marketing skills, and profit margin calculation.

Project manager and recent graduate of SUA, Domina Leonce Swai, worked on the ground with the women to familarize them with the nontraditional tuber, and troubleshoot their way through starting a business. "She lived with them for six months and they treated her as one amongst family. She was easily accepted into the village group. And their children now have access to healthy food to eat more readily because now (the sweet potato) is in a form that is much more fun to eat," said Prakash, noting that the women were taught recipes for cookies, French fries, and tortilla-like bread made from the orange sweet potato flour.

Citing improvements from the Green Revolution, Prakash said, "We're able to feed people in a reasonable manner but, they're not getting quality food. They're missing vitamin A, iron, and zinc – three major nutrients. It's not a high-tech solution, people have already been growing and eating sweet potatoes, but we provided a variety that has an orange color and that makes it more rich in nutrients, and our body gets vitamin A. It's a solution that's helped by changing the diet a little bit."

Before encouragement from the African government and international aid groups, Tanzanian farmers traditionally grew a different type of sweet potato, along with cassava, both "white foods," said Prakash, which are drought tolerant but lack crucial micronutrients.

When the new variety was introduced to farmers, Prakash said, "the problem was, they were not able to make the traditional sweet potato foods the same way, so we helped them with a whole range of recipes."

Started in 2014, the project emphasizes capacity building and outreach, and leverages cell phone technology to facilitate the development of microenterprises. Currently in the final phase of study, researchers are focused on evaluating impact. "We know they're eating the orange-fleshed sweet potato, and we want to make sure it is making a difference in health and growth," he said, noting that stunted growth and night blindness are frequent results of vitamin A deficiency.

"We have developed a questionnaire and now are getting detailed data on how the women feel, and on how much economic activity—how much extra money—they have been making. Like us, there are many people who are working on popularizing the orange-flesh sweet potatoes. Many are doing it, and I think collectively it has made a difference. I've been involved with sweet potato breeding the last 27 years. Today, we're looking for how we can scale this up."

Housed within MSU's International Studies and Programs unit, the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation addresses critical pressures on the world's food supply by creating, testing and enabling the scaling of solutions. GCFSI takes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the entire food system and considers major environmental, economic and social trends, as well as workforce development needs that will impact future food security. Launched in 2012, GCFSI is one of eight development labs established through the Higher Education Solutions Network of the United States Agency for International Development.