Since she began growing it a few years ago, Massah Abdulai hasn’t stopped singing the praises of the orange-fleshed sweet potato. “Our children are getting sick less often. My vision has improved, and I have fewer headaches,” she said. “We know this is medicine. ‘Eat these potatoes, and you won’t need to go to the health clinic,’ I tell people.”
Massah leads a farmers’ organization in rural Sierra Leone that includes many war widows. She has been a relentless advocate of the health and economic benefits of this nutritious crop, which is being reintroduced across the country with the support of Helen Keller International.
After a brutal eleven-year civil war that ended in 2002, the international community prioritized aid efforts to help Sierra Leone recover and rebuild. The 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic reversed some of that hard-won progress, killing almost 4,000 people in Sierra Leone and disrupting not only essential healthcare services, but also education, food production, livelihoods, travel, transportation, and the functioning of markets.
Today, as the country still works to recover from the devastating Ebola crisis, Helen Keller International is prioritizing programs to help rebuild the health system and improve health and nutrition, particularly among vulnerable pregnant women, mothers, infants, and young children.
To that end, since 2016, with funding from Irish Aid, Helen Keller International has worked in partnership with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the government-run Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI), and with input from the International Potato Center (CIP) to reintroduce pest- and disease-resistant orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to Sierra Leone.
The crop was cultivated before the war due to its sweet taste and its wealth of nutrients like beta carotene, which the human body converts to beneficial Vitamin A. Unfortunately, violence and widespread displacement of populations during the war devastated agriculture and food production—and the orange-fleshed sweet potato disappeared completely from Sierra Leone.
As part of the reintroduction project, Helen Keller International and its partners assessed 50 varieties of sweet potato. Only three were ultimately selected for promotion: Chipka, Kaphulira, and Mathuthu. These especially hardy varieties retain their high-calories and nutrients even when boiled, steamed, or roasted.
Helen Keller International and SLARI provide technical assistance to farmers like Massah, using demonstration plots to teach them how to plant, make soil ridges, weed, fertilize, and irrigate their orange-fleshed sweet potato crops most effectively.
Some Sierra Leoneans prefer to harvest the leaves of the sweet potato to make a tasty sauce, but this practice diminishes the plant’s tuber yield. Massaquoi and his colleagues educate farmers about the different best practices for growing leaves or tubers, depending on the farmers’ goals.
Massah noticed the benefits of the new crop quickly: “I began preparing the sweet potato for my family and saw my young daughter Salimatu’s health improving.” Convinced of its many beneficial qualities, Massah started a thirty-member farmers’ organization in her town of Blama in eastern Sierra Leone, with the help of SLARI and Helen Keller International. “I want to teach people about this great potato,” she said.
Massah and her fellow group members have created a vine multiplication site that is increasing supply and demand for orange-fleshed sweet potato cuttings, from which new plants are propagated. Between planting vines, selling and giving away cuttings, fertilizing, weeding, transplanting, cultivating the vines and tubers, and selling them, the members of Massah’s group work year-round to promote orange-fleshed sweet potato expansion and adoption.
Twenty of the 30 members of Massah’s group are women, ten of whom are widows. Five of the women, including Massah, lost their husbands during the war. Massah is proud of the work that her group is doing to improve the health and economic fortunes of her community, particularly those most affected by the war. She estimates that two-thirds of the tubers produced go to market, with the proceeds benefiting the members, and one-third of the tubers are used for family consumption of members, thereby improving their dietary diversity and nutrition.
Since 2017, the HKI and SLARI teams have worked with a variety of other stakeholders, including agricultural organizations, health workers, and international non-profit organizations to reintroduce and promote the orange-fleshed sweet potato in half of the fourteen districts of Sierra Leone. We have established partnerships with almost 100 farmer organizations and other groups in these regions. With Irish Aid support, plans are in motion to scale up the program to the rest of the country by 2021.
Over the past 30 years, Sierra Leone’s people have endured more than their share of hardship. The reintroduction of orange-fleshed sweet potato to the country, and its impending expansion nationwide, is an impressive story of potential and hope taking root and flourishing for years to come.