Over a third of children under the age of five living in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. A team of scientists is working to reduce childhood malnutrition there through a unique and integrated agriculture-nutrition research project. Their project focuses on encouraging the local production and consumption of bright orange sweet potatoes, which are rich in vital nutrients, including beta-carotene and Vitamin A.

Most locally produced sweet potato varieties are white-fleshed, and don’t contain beta-carotene. Women often produce a family’s food. By influencing women to cultivate orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OSP varieties), the researchers hope to have a positive impact on childhood nutrition. They face daunting obstacles, including the fact that the orange varieties are often viewed as “poor person’s food,” and thus, are ignored by policymakers, researchers, and breeding programs. In addition, because the plant is propagated by sharing vines rather than seeds, private industry has little interest in developing varieties.

Jan Low (@Cipotato) provides field notes about the project for The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals network.


“OSP is the first biofortified food – that is food that is bred to concentrate the levels of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin A enhancement is done through conventional breeding as beta-carotene rich varieties exist in nature. From the outset, an integrated approach was used, combining breeding OSP varieties with nutrition education at the community level. OSP was never envisioned as a magic bullet miraculously solving the problem, but as an entry point for empowering caregivers to improve child feeding practices and overall household nutrition.”

And this:

One of the major achievements so far has been building a strong community of sweet potato breeders in 12 African countries which interact and share best practice around the sweet potato knowledge portal. So far, over 950,000 households in 12 sub-Sahara African countries have received improved OSP materials and investments have been made in building networks of vine multipliers so that farmers can easily access quality planting material.

Low asks – and answers – the following question:


“Can super sweet potatoes solve malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa? The answer is no, but they can certainly make a significant contribution.”