Health workers in Homa Bay are turning to the orange-fleshed sweet potato to fight malnutrition in children, of whom 19 per cent (one in five) are stunted (low height for age), while five per cent are underweight (low weight for age).
While orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are grown in western Kenya, health officials are concerned that children and pregnant women in the region are not getting enough vitamin A, which they could easily get from the drought-resistant tuber. And despite a government policy to fight vitamin A deficiency nationally, one in two pregnant women do not receive vitamin A supplements after birth as recommended (to pass it on to their babies in breast milk).
Nearly one in three children aged six months to five years have not received vitamin A supplements, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014.
Speaking at a training on sweet potatoes last week, Homa Bay Chief Officer for Health Jenipher Ndege noted that orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which mature in three to four months, can serve as a major source of vitamin A, while enhancing food security.
In addition to the tubers, the leaves are usually ready for picking and cooking a month or two after planting the vines, and can be prepared like other traditional vegetables. The tubers are rich in iron, vitamin A and vitamin C, with a small tuber able to meet a small child’s daily recommended intake for vitamin A; while the leaves are rich in protein.
This, researcher Daisy Lanoi says, can help combat vitamin A deficiency, which affects children and pregnant women, with impact on growth and development.
According to the Kenya National Micronutrient Survey 2011, pre-school children have the highest prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (nine per cent), with marginal vitamin A deficiency of 53 per cent in children under the age of three, meaning that they are at risk of vitamin A deficiency.
In school-age children, one in three have marginal vitamin A deficiency, while in pregnant women, one in five have marginal vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient, and deficiency affects immunity, making children vulnerable to infection and slowing down recovery from illness. Deficiency also makes it harder to fight common childhood illnesses such as measles and diarrhoea, and increases the risk of death. Moreover, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of childhood blindness.
While vitamin A can be found in milk including breast milk, liver, eggs, fish, butter, mangoes, paw paws, carrots, pumpkin, dark green leafy vegetables and other fruits and vegetables, inadequate diets have seen 24 per cent of Kenyans suffer marginal deficiency.
One survey showed that nearly one in three children aged six months to two years did not eat vitamin A in their diet the night or day before the survey.
This is why children under the age of five receive vitamin A supplements, preferably every six months, as the liver can store an adequate amount of the vitamin for four to six months.
However, not all children get the supplements (those who are not breastfeeding and those in rural areas tend to miss out), and only 11 counties have more than eight in 10 children getting the supplements as recommended. This state of affairs is what has officials talking about the need to consume more orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
“We are training health workers to sensitise residents on the nutritional value of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes,” said Homa Bay health chief Ms Ndege.
Agriculture value chain specialist Penina Muoki, from the International Potato Centre, added that orange-fleshed sweet potatoes can be used for various meals, not just breakfast.
“Don’t just boil them. You can use them as substitutes for carrots in chapati, githeri, and meat.”
Sweet potatoes with peanut butter
5 orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled, washed and diced
1 red onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, grated
3 tbsp cooking oil
6 tsp peanut butter
11/2 tsp iodised salt
4 cups water
1. Fry onion with oil until golden brown, then add tomatoes. Stir and simmer until tender or well-cooked
2. Add sweet potato chunks and salt to taste, then cover and simmer.
3. Add four cups of water and simmer.
4. Mix peanut butter with two-thirds cup of water in a bowl, then add to the sweet potatoes, stir and simmer for three minutes, then serve.
You can use coconut milk instead of water.
Nutrient value: One serving provides 89 calories in energy, as well as fat, carbohydrates, protein, fibre, vitamin A (263 mcg), iron and zinc
Source: Kenya Food Recipes 2018: A Recipe Book of Common Mixed Dishes with Nutrient Values as Prepared by Communities by Food and Agriculture Organisation, Ministries of Health and Agriculture