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Time Magazine

Journal article chronicles the spread of orange-fleshed sweetpotato through sub-Saharan Africa

Most often, the process of the development and dissemination of new agricultural technologies is not documented.  Some say, that if a new product is good, it should spread “by itself”.  But the reality is that the surrounding policy environment heavily influences the ability to test new technologies and to disseminate them.  The recent article published by The Global Food Security Journal entitled Tackling vitamin A deficiency with biofortified sweetpotato in sub-Saharan Africa chronicles the 25-year story of development and use of beta-carotene rich orange-fleshed sweetpotato to address vitamin A deficiency.  The success of this program led to three International Potato Center scientists (Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga, and Jan Low) being co-awarded the 2016 World Food Prize, along with Howarth Bouis of the International Food Policy Research Institute for HarvestPlus efforts of biofortification.

While all types of sweetpotato are good sources of minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber, the orange-fleshed varieties have large amounts of the beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for a strong immune system, healthy skin, and good vision. Just one small root (100g) of a medium intensity OFSP variety can meet the daily vitamin A requirements of a young child (400 retinol activity equivalents (RAEs).  In sub-Saharan Africa, where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent in more than 40% of children under the age of five, the vitamin A-rich OFSP has value both as a food security crop but also as a key contributing product to supply bioavailable vitamin A to the diet.

The paper tells the story of the spread of OFSP in four phases, describing key milestones and how they were influenced by the changing policy environment. During Phase 1 (1991-2000), when work started to demonstrate the potential of the crop, there was declining investment in agriculture. Only two countries had sweetpotato breeding programs, and nine other countries were engaged in varietal selection in limited sites.

In Phase 2, funding became available to conduct studies which demonstrated that OFSP-focused, food-based approaches that included a strong nutrition education component were effective in combating vitamin A deficiency.  This helped convince the nutrition community of the validity of the approach as efforts had been heavily focused on addressing vitamin A through capsule supplementation.   

The enabling environment for integrated agriculture-nutrition interventions emerged due to two main factors.  First, the global food price crisis of 2007 re-focused the global community on the need to re-invest in agriculture; second, the nutrition community emphasizing that good nutrition was essential for quality human and economic development, with more emphasis on community-level interventions to address child and maternal nutrition.

Phase 3 is characterized by major investment breakthroughs, leading to expansion of breeding programs in Africa for Africa, and new partnerships – including the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, which is a multi-partner, multi-donor initiative with the goal of reaching 10 million households in 17 SSA countries by 2020, with improved varieties of sweetpotato and their diversified use.  The lead author of the article, Dr. Jan Low says, “As at September 2016, we had reached 29% of the goal. There are still 7.2 million to reach. This will require sustained commitment from partners and more efforts to reach burgeoning urban markets with fresh roots and new OFSP-based processed products.”


To download this open access article, please visit 


About Christine Bukania

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