Killing hunger in Africa with sweet potatoes

Killing hunger in Africa with sweet potatoes

As a 5-year-old growing up in Cape Verde in sub-Saharan Africa, Maria Isabel Andrade had told her mother that she wanted to grow food and make hunger disappear from her town. Growing up in the Sahel region, Ms. Andrade, a leading agronomist, has today succeeded in accomplishing her childhood dream —with bio-fortified sweet potatoes.

She won the World Food Prize, along with Robert Mwanga, Jan Low, and Howarth Bouis in 2016, for her contribution in developing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which were bio-fortified with Vitamin A, that has helped address the challenge of micronutrient deficiency in Mozambique, primarily.

One million farmers are reportedly growing the sweet potatoes she developed in Africa now. On Tuesday, she received the M.S. Swaminathan Award for Environmental Protection here, at an event hosted by the Rotary Club of Madras-East. Speaking to The Hindu, Ms. Andrade said she had developed 15 drought-tolerant varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato in February 2011, which addressed the nutrition deficiency and were also ‘climate smart’ as Sahel region is often affected by severe droughts. Overall, she has developed over 40 varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, of which eight are high yielding.

“I found farmers in the Sahel region growing mostly white-fleshed sweet potatoes. I crossed this native variety with the orange-fleshed sweet potato variety we imported from the U.S. for distributing to farmers,” she said.

‘Cut meat consumption’

The work was accomplished while she was working in association with other plant scientists at the International Potato Centre.

Ms. Andrade is acutely aware of the malnutrition crisis threatening the world. “Of the 7 billion world population, about 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiency.” She stressed on the need to cut meat consumption if the world has to address this challenge.

“For every kilo of meat produced, I can produce 300 kilos of sweet potatoes. A kilo of meat takes 15,000 lt of water for production and requires 120 to 200 sq. mt of grazing land and the emissions that come from the cattle is the equivalent to the polluting gases that come from driving in a highway for 100 miles,” she says, stressing that only rich farmers grow beef, for poor and small farmers only plant-based food crops are a promising source of nutrition.

Given India’s own malnutrition crisis, with the country’s Global Hunger Index of 28.5 ranking close to Mozambique’s 31.7, Ms. Andrade said the success of the orange-fleshed sweet potato could be replicated here too as these crops were easy to grow.

However, she points out that merely producing the crop is not enough. In Mozambique, her research network took the government’s support to conduct social marketing initiatives that involved massive awareness drives and health campaigns to convince people of the benefits of eating bio-fortified sweet potatoes.

When asked whether she owns any patent for the hybrid sweet potato she developed, Ms. Andrade vehemently says, “No. My work is for the smallholder and poor farmers. This work is for the public to benefit from.”

Ms. Andrade plans to spend her prize money on training women farmers to grow bio-fortified crops as she thinks women are a crucial link to resolving the global malnutrition challenge.