The 2016 World Food Prize was awarded to three CIP scientists—Maria Andrade, Jan Low, and Robert Mwanga—and Howarth Bouis of IFPRI/HarvestPlus. It is an acknowledgment both of their achievements and the effectiveness of CIP’s strategy to reduce micronutrient malnutrition by getting millions of families in SSA to grow and consume pro-vitamin A orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP). This approach builds on a strong evidence base that OFSP can contribute to reducing vitamin A deficiency (VAD), and serves as a model for other biofortified crops.
VAD increases the risk of blindness and premature death in children as well as maternal mortality and night blindness among pregnant women. Governments and international organizations have largely relied on capsule supplementation to reduce VAD. Now, however, CIP has shown that an integrated approach that combines agriculture and nutrition education to convince smallholders to grow and eat biofortified OFSP (125 grams of which meets the daily vitamin A requirement of a child under five) and other vitamin A-rich foods can reduce child and maternal VAD.
Proof-of-concept research on the potential of OFSP to reduce VAD was led by Jan Low in Mozambique. Researchers there tested the agriculture–nutrition–education approach and documented that vitamin A intakes among children under five were eight times higher in intervention areas and that a 15% decline in prevalence of VAD among those children could be attributed to this integrated approach. A subsequent HarvestPlus-led study demonstrated that the approach could go to scale cost-effectively. More recently (2009–2015), the Mama SASHA project (Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa) in Western Kenya linked OFSP access to pre-natal care counseling at rural health facilities. A longitudinal cohort study found that dietary vitamin A intake among both mothers and infants in the project’s intervention areas was nearly twice that of control areas, and that VAD decreased among mothers in the intervention areas.
On the basis of such findings, CIP and partners have scaled up efforts that link agronomic support for farmers with nutrition education, while testing and disseminating value chain innovations and OFSP branding strategies that include radio spots, printed materials, and market-based promotions. Most of this work has been organized under the CIP-led Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, a multi-partner, multi-donor effort that delivered improved sweetpotato varieties to an estimated 2.89 million households in 12 SSA countries between 2009 and late 2016, and has a goal of reaching 10 million African households by 2020. RTB adds value to this initiative through its emphasis on gender research, cross-crop learning, results-based planning, and monitoring and evaluation strategies.
Developing and delivering resilient OFSP varieties adapted to African environments and preferences have been major challenges. The first OFSP varieties CIP promoted in SSA were from other regions. Yet it soon became clear that breeding in Africa was essential to develop varieties that were adapted to local conditions, with a flavor and consistency that local people like, and were disease- and drought-tolerant in order to realize high yields. CIP developed an accelerated breeding scheme that has reduced the time from crossing to release from 8 years to 4–5 years. In close coordination with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, CIP has strengthened the capacities of sweetpotato breeders in 14 national agricultural research systems. CIP now coordinates three regional breeding platforms in SSA and a community of practice that meets annually and shares knowledge, protocols, and technology. National programs breeding sweetpotato in SSA have increased from just two in 2005 to 12 in 2016, resulting in 56 new sweetpotato varieties—40 of them OFSP—being released in nine SSA countries since 2009.
CIP has partnered with the public and private sectors to get biofortified OFSP varieties to farmers and training trainers in vine multiplication and appropriate agronomic practices. At the same time, CIP’s branding campaigns and value chain work have opened new markets and established OFSP’s reputation as a healthy food. SSA government officials increasingly see OFSP as a crop that can improve nutrition and strengthen food security while helping communities adapt to climate change.