A Potato of a Different Color

photo of orange sweet potato vines in soil

Source: © 2008 HarvestPlus

You never know how people will react when you suddenly change the color of their food. But a recent HarvestPlus project managed to rapidly integrate orange sweet potatoes into the diets of rural households accustomed to eating white and yellow varieties—and in the process delivered substantial nutritional benefits.

Researchers have bred new varieties of orange sweet potato rich in vitamin A to help combat vitamin A deficiency, a serious problem in many resource-poor areas of the world. Lack of vitamin A weakens immune systems, claims the eyesight of 250,000–500,000 preschool-aged children each year, and in many of these cases results in death. If people in Mozambique switched from growing and eating white or yellow sweet potatoes to the new orange varieties, they should be able to boost their vitamin A consumption and achieve better nutrition, researchers believed.

But would farmers grow—and would parents feed their children—a sweet potato that looks different from what they’re used to? And how long would a project need to last to get them to make the switch?

In 2007 HarvestPlus initiated a two-year project to distribute vitamin A–rich orange sweet potato vines for planting to approximately 10,000 households in the Zambezia Province of central Mozambique, along with agricultural, marketing, and nutritional information. At the end of the project, which was extended another year, IFPRI senior research fellow Alan de Brauw said that about 77 percent of the participating rural households had adopted orange sweet potato and were feeding it to their families. “The rates of adoption were much higher than in lots of other agricultural interventions in Africa,” he says.

Women and children, who are most vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency, nearly doubled their intake of vitamin A during the orange sweet potato harvest period.

Why did people take to the orange sweet potatoes so readily? Was it the high yields? The health messages about vitamin A? The orange color itself? De Brauw and other IFPRI researchers are now turning to these questions: “Analyzing what worked is very important, but we’re also interested in what didn’t work and why. These insights could benefit future efforts to scale up orange sweet potato and other nutrition-based interventions throughout the world.”

– Josh Heard