A nutrition-smart approach to tackle Vitamin A deficiency in Kenya

While it is widely accepted that nutrition education is a valuable ingredient in agricultural research-for-development programs designed to target malnutrition, a recent study seeks to find out if outreach efforts are reaching those most in need.

As part of ongoing efforts to scale out the adoption and utilization of vitamin A-rich orange fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP), the International Potato Center (CIP), in partnership with the World Food Programme, has taken a deeper look at whether activities intended to educate vulnerable populations on the importance of nutrition are reaching their intended audiences. Lessons learned will help inform the design of future biofortification programs, which breed and promote more nutritious crops, as the approach becomes more widely adopted in large efforts to tackle malnutrition.

Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and greatly increases childhood mortality from common illnesses such as diarrhea. Vitamin A-rich OFSP has already shown its value in improving Vitamin A intake in children below the age of 5, as well as in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and international efforts have led to it being adopted by more than six million smallholders to date. In Kenya, where this study took place, Vitamin A deficiency in preschool children is estimated at around 10%, so increasing the adoption and utilization of OFSP in targeted populations could bring widespread benefits.

“Scaling up orange-fleshed sweetpotato and other biofortified crops is a sustainable approach to improving food and nutrition security. Integrating OFSP into the local food systems helps farmers to adapt better to harsh climate conditions such as prolonged drought,” says Joyce Maru, Senior Coordinator of CIP’s Sweetpotato Program in Kenya and co-author of the study.

“CIP and partners working across Africa, Asia, and Latin America have already developed more than 100 locally adapted, climate-smart varieties and promoted their dissemination. But for them to work at scale, more needs to be done to improve how we carry out nutrition education activities to make sure messages are getting to the right audience and have the desired impact. This study provides useful insights to help us do that.”

The study focused on 550 households in 51 villages across Garissa, Tana River, Isiolo, and Baringo counties, where nutrition education activities had taken place a year before including training of sweetpotato traders in marketing OFSP as a high-value nutritional crop, and providing nutritional information to pregnant and breastfeeding women, for example through the Healthy Baby Toolkit. Researchers adopted a mix of primary and secondary data collection methods along with an impact evaluation framework and looked beyond adoption by farmers to understand how consumers were utilizing it, for example, buying or cultivating it.

“The results showed that target populations close to centers where there are markets where they could easily buy OFSP and where they had greater access to extension agents and facilities like mother and baby clinics, the effects were positive and significant,” explains Maru. “Where populations were more remote, the effects were less encouraging, which is concerning, as these populations are more vulnerable to malnutrition with less access to markets or extension services. Education levels and gender dynamics are also important influences.”

For example, the study revealed that female-headed households were less likely to be exposed to nutrition information than male-headed ones. This is despite a specific CIP-WFP intervention strategy that targets women, especially pregnant and breastfeeding ones. One explanation is that these women are less likely to have the time or the means to attend clinics to access nutrition information. Women in remote rural communities may also not have been exposed to much formal education so they may struggle with literacy, reducing the effectiveness of some of the messaging. Greater use of local languages, or other communication mediums like demonstrations, could be helpful.

Chalmers Mulwa, a social scientist at CIP and lead author of the paper, noted that training locally-based extension agents in remote rural areas on nutrition awareness, for example,  could help get that information to more female-headed farming households, boosting both production and consumption.

“The study shows us that research-for-development programs and humanitarian efforts need to adapt how they communicate with some of their target beneficiaries if they are to be successful,” reflects Chalmers Mulwa.

Read the study: Effect of nutrition awareness on utilization of Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato among vulnerable populations in Kenya