Down to Earth

Uganda: Rooting out hidden hunger

In Uganda, sweet potatoes have always been white, not orange, as is common in the west. The crucial difference is that the orange variety is high in vitamin A. If the locals can be convinced to adopt this unusually coloured variety, their children could stave off blindness and in many cases death.

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'Not just any sweet potato, but an orange one'

The idea is simple enough: to breed better varieties of the crops Ugandans already eat. It's known as biofortification.

With the help of international research programmeHarvestPlus, along with a $10 million boost from USAID, the orange sweet potato crop will be rolled out to 225,000 Ugandan farms over the next five years. Eventually this root, high in vitamin A, could be grown across the whole country, making it easier than ever for the population to access the crucial nutrient directly from their own back yard.

'If it's made as natural as possible... so much the better because Vitamin A can save lives'

t's estimated that one third of the under-five population in Africa is vitamin A deficient. This type of malnutrition is known as hidden hunger because the children may not necessarily be hungry, but rather lack the essential micronutrients to grow into healthy adults.

Uganda is fortunate in that the government administers free vitamin A supplements to the population, but reaching hundreds of millions of people in remote villages is both difficult and expensive.

On the other hand, once a seed is introduced into the agricultural landscape, it can be reproduced indefinitely.

'What if we could go a step further?'

While the orange sweet potato is bred conventionally to be high in vitamin A, another project is looking at how crops can be genetically modified to be more nutritious.

Just outside the capital Kampala, we meet the scientists behind Africa's first transgenic bananas, high in vitamin A.

The Ugandan government is currently debating a pro-GM bill which would allow these bananas to be released from quarantine, but not everyone is in favour of the technology, even in the name of better food.

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