Sweetpotato pioneers present at the Borlaug Dialogue

Bio-fortified Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato (OFSP) features in this year’s 2015 Borlaug Dialogue. The annual talks are in honor of Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, a scientist committed to solving wheat production World Food Prizeproblems. Known as one the world’s premiere food conferences, the conference brings together food security research, thought and policy leaders to discuss how to feed the world’s growing population. On the “Borlaug 101: Fundamentals of Global Food Security” agenda are three of the International Potato Center’s (CIP) own OFSP pioneers: Jan Low, Maria Andrade, and Robert Mwanga. Collectively this team helped place bio-fortified OFSP on the nutritional forefront as a means of addressing hidden hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa.


For the world’s poor, staple foods like sweetpotato, make up as much as 70-80% of daily caloric intake resulting in diets poor in micronutrients. Targeting the micronutrient content of staple foods with biofortification is one strategy to counteract micronutrient deficiencies. Low, Mwanga, and Andrade have worked relentlessly to make OFSP a go-to food in the African diet.


In the mid-1990s Vitamin A supplementation campaigns were the main vehicle for treating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) in Sub-Saharan Africa. VAD can be detrimental especially to children. It can limit growth, weaken immunity, lead to blindness and increase mortality.Globally, 163 million children younger than 5 years suffer from VAD, mostly in Africa (40%). OFSP consumption is an effective way to helping counteract the incidence of VAD. However an obstacle to OFSP adoption was revealed in a popular book published in 1992 that claimed that local communities would reject OFSP due to its unfamiliar orange color. This was further compounded by the fact that sweetpotato was generally viewed as a poor man’s crop to be used during times of hunger. In 1995, Low, then a doctoral research fellow with CIP, turned conventional wisdom on its head when she realized that among the OFSP germplasm being tested there were varieties people liked. She found that the barrier to adoption was the texture and not the color. Adapted varieties suited to local tastes could indeed be adopted. This led to the first female focused study that looked at women centered approaches to reducing micronutrient deficiency and revealed that an education component linked to OFSP introduction was essential in order to assure that children consumed OFSP in sufficient quantities. A proof-of-concept study designed by Low in Mozambique with children in 791 households revealed a 15% decline in VAD prevalence could be attributed to integrated agriculture, nutrition and marketing interventions.



In Mozambique, where Andrade is based, OFSP has become an essential food security crop known by the popular slogan, “O doce que dá saúde” or “the sweet, that gives health.” Starting in 2000 Andrade and her team worked to couple research into drought tolerant OFSP varieties with building strong partnerships.


In the aftermath of the worst flooding ever recorded in Mozambique in 2001, Low and Andrade worked together to convince OXFAM to fund the dissemination of the new OFSP varieties as part of the country’s post-emergency recovery programming. More than 122,000 farmers in flood affected regions received the new varieties for planting and were exposed to key nutrition messaging through community theater and other promotional materials. This was the birth of the “demand creation campaigns,” which branded the orange color of OFSP as a sign of healthy vitamin A rich foods. OFSP promoters in Mozambique are now known as the “Eat Orange team” and OFSP marketing materials such as t-shirts, umbrellas, signs, market stalls and motorcycles are awash with the trademark color. As a result, in 2013, an estimated 26% of all sweetpotato grown in Mozambique is OFSP and more than 1 million households have received improved high yielding OFSP materials.



In Uganda sweetpotato is eaten widely, however, prior to Robert Mwanga’s work only the white-fleshed variety was consumed and the Ugandan government had prioritized other crops ahead of sweetpotato. Mwanga was the engine that convinced the government to change its position and helped to make sweetpotato research a national priority. He’s worked to replace white sweetpotatoes with beta-carotene rich OFSP. Under Mwanga’s guidance Uganda has become the sweetpotato support platform for East and Central Africa. He helped to establish the Roots and Tuber crops Program at the Namulonge research facility and developed a separate research program dedicated to the release of improved OFSP varieties. Sweetpotato breeders and technicians from 10 Sub-Saharan African countries have honed their sweetpotato breeding skills under his watch. Mwanga’s leadership has led to breakthroughs in understanding the underlying genetics of virus resistance while creating varieties that suit the local palette.


These three pioneers have dedicated themselves to disseminating OFSP knowledge. Throughout their work they emphasize OFSP’s diversity and how it can be used as: a basic food staple, as a vegetable (leaves and roots), for animal feed, as a snack food and as an ingredient in processed foods. Low’s research on the state of sweetpotato knowledge in Sub-Saharan Africa led to a series of Challenge Theme papers that helped  launch the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI) in 2009.  The goal of SPHI was to reposition OFSP in African food economies, particularly in urban food markets; to reduce child malnutrition; and improve smallholder incomes. Since 2010, Low has spearheaded SPHI and manages its foundation project, the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now in its second five year phase.

Andrade, Low, and Mwanga are indeed visionaries. They follow in Borlaug’s footsteps of helping to feed a hungry world. Their research, mentorship, dedication, and forward thinking has helped to generate interest in nutrition sensitive agriculture. By putting OFSP in the hands of VAD affected communities they are providing tools for farming households to earn an income while getting essential nutrients on the family table.