Sweet Potatoes: A ‘Magic Crop’ for Better Nutrition?
“They call it a magic crop.” That was the first thing Lansana Sesay said to me when I met him at the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI) in the city of Makeni. Sesay, who is SLARI’s Research and Extension Officer, is working to reintroduce orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to small- and medium-scale farmers in Sierra Leone. “Magic” is the last word I expected to hear from him. We’re talking tubers, after all.
The communities where Helen Keller International works in Sierra Leone are some of the most vulnerable in a country that is among the poorest in the world. An estimated 43 percent of the country’s population suffers from food insecurity, meaning they lack reliable access to affordable food to meet their daily needs. Most people in rural areas depend largely on what they can grow themselves to feed their families. Their diet consists of basic staple foods such as rice and cassava, which are low in essential nutrients that young children need.
It’s no surprise, then, that Sierra Leone has high rates of micronutrient deficiency. Around half of children under the age of five lack sufficient levels of Vitamin A, which is crucial to healthy growth and development: it strengthens immune systems, reduces vulnerability to disease, and protects eye health and vision.
Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) is high in Vitamin A that Sierra Leonean children so sorely need, and is closely related to the less nutritious white-fleshed sweet potato that is already widely grown by local farmers. Because it was previously cultivated by these communities, it made sense to prioritize reintroducing this nutrient-rich crop to local farmers and markets.
When local growers switched from white- to orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with support from SLARI and Helen Keller International, they noticed that it led to larger crop yields and healthier children. In a country suffering from chronic food insecurity and widespread malnutrition, that does feel magical.
Another way that Helen Keller International addresses the problem of Vitamin A deficiency among children in parts of rural Sierra Leone is by administering twice-yearly Vitamin A supplements to children between the ages of six months and five years of age. The effort requires a huge amount of infrastructure and organization to reach all the children in need, and this does not solve the problem at its root—pun intended. Integrating essential nutrients into mothers’ and children’s diets and educating mothers about how to optimally feed infants and young children, however, is a sustainable, food-based approach that could eventually eliminate the need for micronutrient supplementation.
Sesay and Hamid Turay, who is Helen Keller International’s OFSP Program Manager in Sierra Leone, took me to a farm an hours’ drive from Makeni to show me where the magic happens, so to speak.
We were greeted by a multigenerational group of about 15 women farmers who converged around us, singing, clapping, and dancing. Sesay explained that they were welcoming me — and praising the sweet potato, which they had started to collectively farm on a three-acre patch of land just two weeks before. One of the farmers, Mariatu Kalokoh, said on behalf of her group, “We just planted the cuttings, and they’re already blooming. Very soon, we will have enough food. We heard that sweet potatoes are good for us. They are medicinal, and that’s why we’re very happy to grow them.”
Women like Mariatu came together from three communities to participate in Helen Keller International’s program. They pooled their money and used it to feed the men in their families, whom they enlisted to construct mounds of soil across the plot. The women planted the sweet potato vines. After planting, the women returned to carefully irrigate them every two days and monitor their progress.
“We have secured this plot of land. We are waiting to harvest, and then we want to plant again using that land over there,” Mariatu said, pointing to a vast field adjoining their own. It will take time and money to expand the women’s operation, but they are determined for their enterprise to flourish right alongside their sweet potatoes.