Eating orange flesh in Mozambique is not an episode from a bizarre horror movie. On the contrary it is a message of life-saving nutrition and hope for millions of young children.
Orange is the colour of a new range of varieties of sweet potato that contain beta-carotene, a pre-cursor of vitamin A. Over 180 million children in the world suffer from severe malnutrition, over 40 million in sub-Saharan Africa. They don't get enough to eat and their diets lack several vital micronutrients -- vitamin A, iron and zinc in particular. As a consequence they may die, become blind or suffer from stunted physical, mental and social development.
In Mozambique in the 1990s over some 60 percent of the children under five years of age were malnourished in this way. It is a shocking statistic and some 15 years ago it moved a young enterprising African woman to find a solution to the problem. Reporting on her progress, she stole the show in No. 10 Downing Street at the UK's one day Hunger Event on the last day of the Olympics this summer. Two weeks ago I and my wife, Susan, met up with her in Mozambique and visited the fields and laboratories where the new orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are being developed.
Maria Andrade greeted us at our hotel, arriving in an orange painted Land Rover with the slogan, O doce que dá saúde ("The sweet that gives health"), emblazoned on the side. She wore an orange dress and gave us orange T-shirts and caps to wear. Not only is she a first class plant breeder and agronomist, she is a dynamic publicist getting the message of good nutrition to the farmers of Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa.
Maria was born in the Cape Verde Islands that lie off the coast of West Africa. She was a bright student and won a scholarship to the U.S., finishing her PhD at North Carolina State. On her return home she began to work on the root crops in the islands, cassava and sweet potato, and then moved in 1996 to head the Southern Africa Roots and Tubers Network, based in Maputo and funded by USAID.
Sweet potatoes were already ubiquitous in Mozambique. It is a classic food security crop, the roots being left in the soil and lifted when other crops are not available. The vines were widely distributed after the civil war to help families re-establish themselves. Growing well on marginal land the new varieties distributed in the early 1990s matured in only four to six months. They were white fleshed, very rich in carbohydrates, but lacked beta-carotene.
Orange-fleshed varieties were introduced by the National Institute for Agronomic Investigation, INIA, in 1997 and a year later the Mozambique government created a new food strategy framework, PROAGRI, which stressed three pillars -- availability, access and utilisation -- with an emphasis on nutritional quality.
The director of INIA, Rafael Uaeine together with Maria Andrade and faculty from Michigan State University, Jan Low and Julie Howard, who is now Chief Scientist for USAID, argued persuasively for a major breeding and distribution programme. Funds were forthcoming - notably from Helen Keller International, USAID and Oxfam and the programme got off to a fast start.
Nine new orange-fleshed varieties were released in 2000, just in time to help with the recovery from devastating floods in southern Mozambique. By 2005 half a million households had received improved planting material. But then a severe drought in 2005 brought home the need to breed for drought tolerance.
Sweet potato has a rich genetic diversity and in 2006, Maria, now employed by the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru was put in charge of the Mozambique breeding programme. Using an accelerated, but conventional, breeding program which her team at INIA designed has halved the time needed to produce new varieties from eight to four years. Fifteen new drought resistant varieties were released in 2011.
Two hundred thousand genotypes have been evaluated; we saw the breeding plots where the crosses are made, greenhouses where they are raised and the labs that use tissue culture to rid the plants of viruses.
Two hundred farmers throughout the country, like one we visited, are multiplying the plants to produce vines for distribution. The new varieties are rapidly taken up. Farmers especially like a variety called Melinda, named after Melinda Gates who visited the sites last year. These new varieties can produce up to 15 tons per ha. But even when yields are lower, 500 square meters of plants can generate an annual supply of vitamin A for a family of five.
Women farmers are a key to success. In Mozambique, they control the production and sale of sweet potato, in some areas, providing a timely source of income that women use to pay for salt, sugar, medicines, and other basic household needs
The program has all the makings of a success story in Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa. In addition to the anecdotal, there is compelling evidence it works. Adoption rates in the project areas were over 60 percent and there was a significant increase in children consuming the orange-fleshed sweet potato. Both women and children nearly doubled their intake of beta-carotene and there were significant increases in serum retinol, the form in which vitamin A circulates in the blood.
Many research and practice questions remain, but the urgency now is to see more growing and consuming of orange-fleshed sweet potato in Mozambique and the spread of the new varieties to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Professor Conway's new book 'One Billion Hungry: Can we Feed the World?' was published on October 9th.
Follow Professor Sir Gordon Conway on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ag4impact