Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – 7th October 2016
“If you come from an island you are a very different person. When I was young I would stand there and wish to go somewhere, yet you know you will go but your soul will remain on the island. It is how the poets also feel.” Maria Andrade explains her favorite song – Cesaria Evoria’s Soldade, as the panel discussion begins. With her opening words, she transports the audience to the island of Cape Verde, where she was born and raised. It is also where she did her initial breeding work, before she relocated to Mozambique.
Maria and Jan Low, the two 2016 World Food Prize laureates present at the annual SPHI meeting, have just been ushered to the stage by the moderator, Margaret McEwan, accompanied by their favorite tracks.
Margaret starts the discussion by showing them a photograph of the first multi-sectoral meeting in Mozambique, when they had discussed the potential of OFSP. She makes an interesting observation – almost all the varieties released by Maria are named after women.
Maria explains, “In Portuguese, the verb ‘batata doce’ is feminine.” But it goes deeper than that. The names honor women who have dedicated themselves to agriculture, nutrition and biofortification, and who have actively contributed to the breeding efforts. Some were there from the very beginning, as the idea of using OFSP to combat high levels of malnutrition were discussed on relaxed Saturday afternoons. Others came later, helping to facilitate and manage the ongoing work, or even volunteering to cook OFSP recipes. But among all these female names is only one male name – Tio Joe. It means Uncle Joe. “This variety is in honor of Joe DeVries, because he was the first one who believed in us and put in some money to start a breeding program in Mozambique, for Mozambique with a spillover in southern Africa,” Maria explains.
Jan’s soundtrack is Helen Reddy’s 1971 hit, I am woman. It is a song of strength and determination. “This is a song I chanted to myself as I made my way up Mt. Kenya and did not quit. It is one of those songs that just stays in your head,” Jan explains.
Turning adversity to opportunity
Maria recalls the first time that she and Jan met. It was 1996, and when she heard someone call out the name of the person she had been waiting to meet. She got out of her office and into the corridor to say hallo. She quickly overcame her surprise at the fact that Jan Low was not a man, as the name had led her to believe, and from that day, they have stuck together, through good and bad times.
The devastating floods of 2000 are a memorable period, which was a disaster, that the two turned into an opportunity. The money for their sweetpotato work was running out, and they submitted a proposal to Oxfam for emergency distribution of sweetpotato vines. “We convinced them that to make it work, we needed to do a nutrition campaign. At emergency time you cannot do community level nutrition education, but we developed a series of promotional materials like the capulanas and community level theatre,” Jan recalls.
The foundation for this intervention had been built long before this, when Jan did her post-doctoral work with CIP in 1995. The study showed that a nutrition education component is needed when introducing OFSP in the young child diet. Jan felt that one of the challenges to do a good controlled trial was to avoid contamination of your sample. “Central Mozambique is as isolated as you can get and at the time the prevalence rate for vitamin A deficiency for children under 5 was 65%. It was an environment which we could do a food-based study and be able to measure the impact of the work,” she recalls.
What Jan did not count on, was how difficult it would be to get donor support at a time when supplementation was all the rage. “The health donors would say it was an agricultural project, and the agricultural donors would say it was a health project. I spent my summer vacations during three years going around to 21 donors before we got lucky.”
After 3.5 years of trying, the breakthrough came, when the Micronutrient Initiative acknowledged that this food-based method was likely to work. With USAID and Rockefeller Foundation also coming on board, there was enough funding to do a two and a half year proof-of-concept study in Mozambique, with varieties supplied by Maria, with World Vision and HKI as the implementing partners. That culminated in a seminal paper that was awarded the best scientific article in the CGIAR in 2007.
The floods provided an opportunity to promote dissemination of vines and social market strategies. OFSP was first promoted in Mozambique in 2001, and since then, 40% of sweetpotato producers are growing orange-fleshed varieties. Vitamin A deficiency has reduced from 69% in 2002, to 55%, according to the 2013-14 Global Nutrition Report. Despite the progress made in using integrated production, marketing and nutrition strategies in Mozambique, Maria suggests that they can learn from countries such as Kenya and Uganda, where OFSP uptake has been faster. Jan adds that developing adaptive varieties in nine countries is a key investment to go to scale, and that the lessons learned breeding in Africa for Africa should be taken advantage of. According to her, radio is an effective tool for raising awareness at the community level in terms of creating markets.
A multi-sectoral approach has been central to the operations in Mozambique. “You cannot talk of only OFSP, agriculture or nutrition; policy, markets, education and other sectors are also necessary,” Maria says. The Secretariado Técnico de Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional (SETSAN) network, which brings together government programs and organizations working on policies related to food security and nutrition, have provided communication and coordination that has had a positive effect. Maria notes that due to the large country and dispersion, SETSAN has set up provincial level networks to convene people at decentralized locations.
The UN Decade for Action on Nutrition provides new opportunities
The UN Decade for Action on Nutrition 2016-2026 is focusing on the double burden of under and over nutrition. The award of the 2016 World Food Prize to four scientists working on OFSP and biofortification is an opportunity to create momentum to work with governments, the UN and other partners to speed up progress towards achieving the SPHI goal, which is to reach 10 million households through improved varieties of sweetpotato and their diversified use by 2020.
The laureates are full of ideas about how this goal can be achieved: improving sweetpotato seed systems, integrating nutrition education into school curricula, strengthening private sector involvement in the value chain, social marketing, influencing policies for increased government investment in sweetpotato, and strengthening the sweetpotato community of practice to share lessons and approaches.
As the last of their inspirational words fade away, Margaret McEwan queues in their upbeat soundtracks, and they go back to their seats amid resounding applause from the participants, who no doubt, are looking forward to a moment to continue the discussions.