Sweetpotatoes for Health and Happiness: Visiting the Mama SASHA Project in Bungoma, Kenya

(10 Jul 2013) Our Kenyan colleagues were as moved as we foreigners were when dozens of young women greeted us with songs and dancing at the Women’s House in Bungoma District, Western Kenya. Even before we got off the bus, they were chanting about orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes (OFSP), waving vines and roots at us. We joined them in the dance with music played by a local band on locally-made instruments, before sitting down to watch a play performed by amateur – but very convincing – actors.

That’s the welcoming committee that received us on our field trip from Naivasha and the 9th Triennial Conference of the African Potato Association. Conference participants had the option of choosing from five different field trips showcasing value chain work in potato and sweetpotatoes. Around 30 of us chose to visit Bungoma, in Western Kenya, where Mama SASHA project, led by CIP and PATH (an international health NGO) integrates agriculture and nutrition nicely into prenatal healthcare to maximize the benefits of OFSP – an important source of energy and beta-carotene, also known as pro-Vitamin A, which is essential for mothers and young children.

I had already enjoyed watching the video on Mama SASHA a few months back, and I was curious to see their work in the field.

The key objective of Mama SASHA is to have pregnant women visit antenatal health care services at least 4 times during their pregnancy and improve their nutrition and health. Community health workers help identify pregnant women in their communities and encourage them to visit the antenatal care clinics (ANCs) from where they are enrolled into the project. At the ANCs, nurses give them precious advice on health for themselves and the baby-to-come, including on nutrition and monitor their health status. They are also given vouchers to get sweetpotato vines from local vine multipliers that they can plant and grow later on for the benefit of their family. How does that work? “We have a good acceptance rate”, said Frederick Grant, a nutritionist and Project Leader of Mama SASHA/CIP Bungoma, “more than 70% of women use their vouchers.”

The women aren’t left alone with their vines. Extension workers follow up by visiting them in their homes and teaching them agricultural practices to help them produce good sweetpotato crops.

“It’s been very successful right from the beginning,” explained Grant. “In 2012, we had reached 2,800 women, much more than the 900 we originally expected when the project started in 2009.”

Men are not left out of the project. Some of the community health workers (CHWs) of the Mama SASHA project are men; they were trained just like the women CHWs to impact health and nutrition education to the project’s beneficiaries. In addition, some of the project’s vine multipliers are also men. The project also trained 80 influential men in the communities to educate their fellow rural men about the importance of the project and to release lands for their wives/spouses to use for planting the OFSP vines.

I couldn’t follow the whole play because it was in Swahili, but I could see the public around us was enjoying it and laughing out loud at the jokes, particularly at the husband who, after showing some reluctance, accepted the vines and eventually ate the products of his wife’s hard work with obvious satisfaction. After the play, participants were invited to taste some boiled sweetpotatoes, a hot snack that we all enjoyed.

As we were leaving, Eileen Barasa, a nurse – in the play and in real life – told me how impressed she was with the impact of the project. “I see a lot less hunger around here these days”, she said.

After the touching reception at the Women’s House, we visited one of the vine multiplier farms, owned by a family that is growing the Kabode and Vita OFSP varieties, who showcased their intercropping work. “We are very happy with the sweetpotato vines, they sell well,” explained Susan Chelimo Emukule, the lady of the farm.

By Véronique Durroux-Malpartida

Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) is a 5-year project led by the International Potato Center (CIP) in collaboration with over 26 partner organizations. It is part of the broader, long-term, multi-donor Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI). Read more