Vitamin A deficiency is a widespread health challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 250,000 to 500,000 malnourished children in the developing world go blind each year from a deficiency of vitamin A. This form of malnutrition reduces the ability to fight infections and means children are at much greater risk of measles, respiratory and diarrheal infections, decreased growth rate, slow bone development, and decreased likelihood of survival from serious illness. It is estimated that 43 million children under age of five in Sub-Saharan Africa are vitamin A deficient. Globally, inadequate vitamin A claims the lives of an estimated 670,000 young children annually. Vitamin A deficiency also poses a health threat to pregnant women and new moms, as it contributes to maternal mortality and poor health outcomes during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, sweet potatoes are a staple crop for farming families. However, the traditional African sweet potato is dull yellow – not bright orange like the ones we find in Canadian or American super markets. This is a problem because bright orange is the colour of foods that are rich in beta carotene – vitamin A. After fifteen years of research, new varieties of African sweet potato have been bred (not using GM) that contain much more beta-carotene without affecting their taste or texture. This “orange-fleshed sweet potato” (OFSP) is a highly nutritious crop that has health benefits for pregnant women, new mothers and young children. Increasing the consumption (especially by children) of OFSP is an excellent approach to reducing vitamin A deficiency. Efforts are now needed for this crop to reach the farms and dinner plates of mothers, pregnant women and young children.
In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Helen Keller International, The International Potato Centre and the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA), Farm Radio International launched a new three-year initiative to fight Vitamin A deficiency. Using participatory radio and ICT strategies, the project will scale-up the production and consumption of OFSP in Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso to add it to at least 500,000 rural households’ diets.