Orange Fleshed Sweet Potatoes, rich in Vitamin A, are a critical resource in our ongoing work to reduce malnutrition. 44% of preschoolers in the Sub-Saharan Africa are vitamin A deficient, putting them at much higher risk for blindness, illness and childhood death. Helen Keller International’s vital goal, together with the Reaching Agents of Change (RAC) project, is to increase the growth, distribution and consumption of Orange Sweet Potatoes in Africa, and to do so quickly and sustainably.
The first step to generating demand was clearly to raise awareness. This is a community based project and resources are scarce; as the project leader I had to figure out a way to share a lot of information far and wide with whatever I had at my disposal: some basic training tools, creative problem-solving and my understanding of how things work in my district: Geita, pop. 800,000.
There was a lot of ground to cover, and in order to reach a widespread audience it was clear we would need more hands on deck. My colleagues at Helen Keller Intl and I recruited community advocates throughout the district to serve as project ambassadors. We taught them about orange sweet potatoes, gave them the resources to pass along the information they had learned to others, and planned outreach efforts with the intention of fostering collaboration between all sectors. This was exactly the collaborative model this project needed to succeed!
Once trained, the advocates threw themselves into lobbying local Council Members, taking every opportunity to educate them on the power of orange sweet potatoes to save the lives of our family, friends and neighbors. Appreciating how important government support would be to achieving their goal, they learned the Council’s calendar and made sure theirs was the last message key Members heard before planning sessions and votes. Impressed by both the data and their passion, Council Members grew excited about the project and found themselves cooperating with the project advocates and, even more surprisingly, with one another to secure funding in the community. “This is the first time we have ever collaborated as a team!” one of them voiced. “It’s been great to collaborate across departments on a common goal; until now, I didn’t have a clue what other Council Members were working on!”
The advocates and their new champions in the Council reached out to farmers, health and education providers, and businesses, creating bridges between sectors, such as government and private, which had not existed before. The Geita Gold Mine was so impressed by their presentation that they invited Council to submit a proposal, which three council departments and representative from farmers’ group leaders worked on together.
“It’s been great to collaborate across departments on a common goal; until now, I didn’t have a clue what other Council Members were working on!”
The message took root throughout the district, spreading further each and every day. I knew we had reached a milestone when I heard the District Commissioner announce that: “The way to protect our district from the dangers of food insecurity and Vitamin A deficiency is to increase the number of farmers we reach. Once we show them the simple technology behind higher yields at lower cost there will be enough OFSP for us all!”
After successfully securing initial funding we began putting our efforts on the technical and logistical aspect of the project, knowing that the bonds we had created would strengthen that phase of the project, too. A day when there might indeed be “enough OFSP for all” is now in sight!
The success of this project came with two additional gifts: a terrific model for all Tanzania’s Councils moving forward, and proof that local challenges can indeed be met through advocacy and collaboration.