Taarifa Rwanda

Scientists Find Secret In Sweet Potatoes, Eat Them Or Miss Out

You may have shovelled down those sweet potatoes on your plate.

Others have never allowed sweet potatoes on their plate.

It is a common phenomenon that sweet potatoes are traditionally considered food for low income earners on the lowest position of the social status ladder.

That is an absurdity, according to food scientists.

They argue that sweet potatoes are extremely rich in multiple nutritional benefits.

They advise that you eat them and let everyone in the family get a piece of that tuber.

Dr. Jan Low, an agricultural economist at the International Potato Center in Kenya with a long-time experience in Sub-Saharan Africa talked, to Taarifa about this unique and useful crop.

While in Kigali recently where she had come to organize the upcoming African Potato Association (APA) Conference expected in August 2019, she told Taarifa about the efficacy of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in resolving the continent’s food security and malnutrition.

Below is their full conversation:

How did you pick interest in orange-fleshed sweet potato, of all crops and foods in the world?

Dr. Jan Low: I am a trained agricultural economist and I focused on nutrition during my doctoral work. I just happened to get a grant from my local fellow foundation to do my post-doctoral work at the International Potato Centre in Kenya.

When I arrived there, they were working on a sweet potato video made through the Kenya National Program. They worked using any varieties of sweetpotato like white and yellow fleshes. So, it wasn’t in the food system.

When I asked them whether they realized how rich in pro-vitamin A orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were, they told me that people had tried to introduce them before, but they were not preferred. So, we went out with them and tasted it. I raised some money from the International Centre for Nutrition Women which is a small study.

In the study, we found out that people actually loved the color orange.

The challenge was the taste because the orange varieties that were available from other countries were too low in dry matter that the children loved but the adults didn’t because traditional sweet potato varieties in sub-Saharan Africa have a floury texture which means that they are higher in dry matter.

Over time, knowing that the research served an official need for human health, because one small orange-fleshed sweet potato root meets the daily vitamin A needs for every child. It is a no brainer intervention if you want to fight vitamin A deficiency.

A medium-sized root meets the daily needs of a woman. It is a crop that people are already used to growing, simple to grow when you think that there is no real major disease problem for sweet potato.

 Did you manage to convince them?

Dr. Jan Low: Yes, and people love it. If we have the right variety with the right texture; it is adopted. All we have been doing is really promoting breeding it in Africa for Africa. We have 9 sub-Saharan African countries that is in the sense that during the past 10 years we allowed investments which with the help of donors have been able to release over 80 new sweet potato varieties that have been bred in Africa. So, they are adapted here. Over 50 of those have been orange-fleshed. So, now they can stand up the conditions that are here and they taste perfect for adult consumers as well.

Who do you think needs this sweet potato?

Dr. Jan Low: Everybody including men.

How about the regional white sweet potato?

Dr. Jan Low: The Americas, only grow orange-fleshed. We do not have white-fleshed sweet potatoes. The only one we know is orange. It all depends. Sweet potato came from the Americas and arrived in Africa in the 1600s. For whatever reasons, the varieties that you adapted or grow here were white or yellow-fleshed. If you go to China, their preferred sweet potato variety is purple-fleshed. It is full in antocytins. Antocytins like dedicated for orange fleshes is an antioxidant which prevents cancers and fight off diseases well, but very few crops have been a model of pro-vitamin A as a sweet potato does. In particular, in Africa there is a duel for sources of plants that have lots of vitamin A.

To me, it is what we call a no brainer intervention. Why not put this into the food system? In Rwanda, sweet potato is already the most important food crop because you have a very small land and compared to your grain crops, sweet potatoes give higher energy output within your area.

The potato variety matures between 3 to 5 months depending on the variety. How long do you wait for your maize crop? You need food fast in a country that has small land and size. That is why these crops are so important in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, because they produce a lot of energy on a small piece of land in a shorter period of time.

Who do you have this conversation with?

Dr. Jan Low: We talk to everybody. Right now where we have offices in the International Potato Centre, as offices in 10 sub-Saharan African countries but other countries requested that we send it to them. We have requests for example, from Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, because this is a food security crop. What we are saying now is that the orange as a food security crop has really enhanced pro-vitamin A project.

Has the commercial food chain picked interest?

Dr. Jan Low: What we are working and making a lot of progress on is the promotion for urban centres over the use of orange-fleshed sweet potato puree and the steamed and mashed sweet potato that can be produced in vacuum packing bags. The idea is to use this to substitute 30 to 60% of wheat flour in bread products. For instance, now Tusker supermarket in Kenya is selling orange-fleshed sweet potato bread. Here in Rwanda, you have Product para disks in which 43% of wheat flour is replaced by steamed mashed sweet potato.

What is your concept?

Dr. Jan Low: We know that every consumer likes convenient food to eat, we know that bread is extremely popular in Eastern and Central and Southern Africa. The idea is that we want to replace a significant percentage of wheat flour with orange-fleshed sweet potato puree to increase the vitamin A content of the product. It turns the product golden, makes it good and nicer and usually lowers the cost of production for the processor and you use it in a crop that Rwandese farmers grow instead of buying or using American wheat flour imported from the US or other countries because most African countries cannot produce enough wheat flour to meet the demands of those citizens. So, it is a win-win.

Two factors: One is production. In the value chain, who are you expecting to be the producers, traditional farmers? Secondly, taste. Do you factor in these two in those campaigns?

Dr. Jan Low: We factor in both. What proved to be key when we were building the value chain for the golden product disks in Rwanda, for example, is first and foremost that people grow sweet potato in Rwanda for food security. The only way they are going to have surplus to sell is if you can get productivity up. We work very closely with the Rwanda Agricultural Board to produce all of these orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties with what we call disease-free planting material. When they use the disease-free planting material on a same small piece of land, the produce will increase and then people have surplus to sell to the processor.

We found that in many cases, you have a few larger growers. But what we found in Rwanda, because many people have small lands that had to be organised into groups and then they will set up schedules so that there could be consistent supply to the processor.

About the taste, now there are varieties that have high floury texture that are orange-fleshed. They took cycles of breeding. Rwanda has a very active breeding program. In the past 5 years, they released two new varieties that are very good.

In this process of getting organised, getting the varieties out and what we do is that we work through projects mostly and getting trained by decentralized vine multipliers identifying farmers in their community, so that they can learn to produce healthy planting materials to the use of stagger material out of the new variety from the Rwanda Agricultural Board.

We work with the vine multipliers to keep a stock of their own disease-free planting materials to the use of what we call conservation net tunnel that protects these original stocks from diseases and pests and they multiply those materials out and they can sell them to their neighbors or NGOs.

Does the bread taste like any other bread we know?

Dr. Jan Low: The bread is more delicious than any other bread. People love the bread and they really like the taste and the color is attractive because it turns the bread golden.

What is the main obstacle you have to deal with so that the adaptation of this crop is taken paramount and added in the food value chain?

Dr. Jan Low: We do what we call demand creation campaigns. And that is where the orange color comes in. We want people to associate orange with good health. In Mozambique for example, we have a campaign for the marketing of orange color through signs and billboards to get people to this association between the sweet that gives health, this is a healthy sweet potato.

In Kenya, traditionally people like to eat sweet potatoes for breakfast. And it is much better if you’ll eat the sweet potato that you digest slowly than you eat bread.

If you eat bread for breakfast, you’ll be hungry by 10 o’clock but when you’ll have sweet potato for breakfast, you’ll go on your own need.

Perhaps it is because it has the dietary fibre so you digest slowly and you are getting all these many more nutrients than you get from eating bread.

Have you managed to pass on this message across?

Dr. Jan Low: If you go back now to Kenyan rather than local hotels now in Kenya, sweet potato was early on the black’s table. People in the urban areas are recognising the need to go back to ancient traditional foods because they were much healthier than those being sold by companies to them in fancy packaging.

You being an American, don’t you find some people saying who is this American telling us what to do and what to eat?

Dr. Jan Low: We work with partners and I hope that when I introduce the topic in Africa a lot of people don’t see me so bad. What I want to see is that the bad habits of the West are not adopted. What we call ultra-processed foods. The USA has a terrible health problem now of overweight reduced fat food because with globalisation and urbanisation, people are borrowing and copying all those models.

If you wish not to have fast food in a restaurant in Kigali, now you do it. Is that good for you? Probably not. Learn from my mistakes, don’t copy the mistakes.

The challenge is that fat really tastes good and human beings genetically love fat and sugar because of our history of surviving in the wilderness which was fine when we were all out working on a farm, or gatherers and hunters because we were burning the calories. Are we now burning the calories as much as it should? Now, there is a pushback in places like Europe and the United States where they really try to insist on their better labelling informing consumers that a certain product is pretty dangerous.

But who reaches this small number of sweet potato consumers, it is a bunch. People have to learn eating in moderation and also go back to their traditional foods. Think about the traditional beans, bread, matooke and sweet potatoes, because they have a great thing in them. In a sense, I’m making people aware that maybe my tradition was very good for me.

What has been your observation about Rwanda’s reaction on this project?

Dr. Jan Low: Rwanda has been in the lead in paying attention to nutrition among many African countries. A report that came out a couple of days ago says that since 2000, Rwanda and Sierra Leone are the two countries that have made the most progress in reducing young child malnutrition and Rwanda should be lauded for that.

If you look at Rwanda’ nutrition policy, it promotes the use crops such as beans, sweet potatoes.

Rwanda is much better than many countries in nutrition in getting that nutrition is very key.

They get that we have to invest in good nutrition if we want to have right healthy children of tomorrow. Rwanda is thinking of the future.

I wish more countries were like Rwanda.

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