By: Janna Oberdorf, Director of Communications and Outreach for Women Deliver
At the Tamlega Dispensary in Chwele, Kenya, pregnant women who arrive for check-ups leave with an unusual prescription: a voucher for sweetpotato vines. The goal is to leverage the untapped potential of sweetpotatoes, a food crop rich in vitamin A, to significantly improve the nutrition, incomes, and food production of farming families in sub-Saharan Africa, especially among impoverished women and children.
The project, “Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA),” was launched in eight sub-Saharan African countries in 2009 by the International Potato Center (CIP), with support from a five-year, $21 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. PATH, who is working with the CIP, the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, and local NGOs on a project in Kenya, has reported a 30 percent increase in first-time visits by pregnant women in their first and second trimesters during just the first month of the project. This is a tremendous boost in maternal health care in Kenya, where one in 38 women will die during pregnancy and childbirth, and only 44 per cent of births are attended by a skilled medical worker according to the 2008/09 Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS).
Women taking part in the project receive vouchers for sweetpotato planting material during their visits to a local health facility for prenatal care. The women then trade their vouchers with local farmers for six kilogram starter packets of sweetpotato vines; the farmers, in turn, are reimbursed by the project at about US$1 per three kilograms of vines distributed. In the first four months of distribution at four health facilities, 836 women received the vouchers and more than 500 redeemed them for vines. Follow-up visits to the homes of 216 women who picked up the vines found that 81 percent had planted them.
Not only does this project empower women with the tools to feed and produce for their families, sweetpotatoes are an important crop for better nutrition. The varieties of sweetpotato that are distributed in the project can significantly lessen vitamin A deficiency that threatens an estimated 43 million sub-Saharan children under age 5. Vitamin A deficiency also contributes to high rates of blindness, disease, and premature death in children and pregnant women. Yet the potential of sweetpotato to address these challenges is largely untapped due to a lack of investment to improve yields, market potential, and its negative perception as a poor person’s food.
If the results of the Tamlega Dispensary are repeated at other clinics, the voucher program may prove to be a tool that helps prenatal care nurses serve more women earlier in their pregnancies. Because early education on positive nutrition can have a lasting impact on both women and their children, this important program is giving nurses the chance to prevent many long-term problems by teaching women about healthy habits during pregnancy and after their babies are born.
Photo courtesy of International Potato Center