A team of scientists at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (COANRE), Department of Horticulture and Food Security, led by Dr. Agnes Kavoo (Principal Investigator), have successfully implemented a research project aimed at promoting Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OSP) in Isiolo County to address nutritional challenges.
The scientists – Dr. Rashid Mwashasha, Dr. Leonard Kiirika and Dr. Lilian Kariuki, contend that undernourishment and malnutrition which are closely related to deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, have led to more than two billion people in the world suffering from hidden hunger.
According to the scientists, deficiency of micronutrients remains a leading challenge among children and pregnant women in arid and semi-arid areas (ASALs) of Kenya.
They argue that an important pathway to reaching adequate nutrition and intake of these nutrients especially vitamin A, which is essential for enhancing the immune system, is through food fortification.
The Orange-fleshed sweet potato project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the program for enhanced engagement in research (PEER), has just been implemented in the arid and semi-arid region of Isiolo County.
Isiolo lies within the ASAL areas in North Eastern Kenya and is dominated by pastoralists (67%) with only 26% agro-pastoralists and the remaining 7% are charcoal/firewood vendors.
The project targeted pastoral communities to enhance a shift in their current social-economic lifestyle from over-reliance on pastoralism to crop farming.
The OSP is a rich plant-based source of beta-carotene which the body converts into Vitamin A upon consumption, and has the potential to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency within the rural communities.
The JKUAT researchers conducted a participatory rural appraisal to assess the adoption potential of OSP in Isiolo County.
Through household surveys, the farmers’ knowledge, production practices, constraints, acceptance and willingness to grow the OSP were profiled.
Interestingly, according to the research survey, “Only 52.4% of the farmers interviewed were aware of the OSP but the majority had only knowledge and utilization of the local/indigenous sweet potato varieties.”
The survey further reveals that 100% of the farmers interviewed were willing to grow the OSP. However, the challenges facing production as reported by the majority of the farmers included; pests and diseases, lack of improved varieties, short shelf life and lack of market.
Farmers were also aware of sweet potato utilization as a dual purpose crop, either as food (81%) and feed (52%). Farmers’ participation in the project led to an increase in agronomic and nutritional knowledge among the households and uptake of OSP varieties.
The dual nature of sweet potato utilization suggests a huge potential for up-scaling production to satisfy a demand dietary diversification, value addition and eventual increase in household incomes and reduced resource related conflicts among pastoralist communities.
One of the major milestones realized within one year of the project implementation was over 200 households in Isiolo County had adopted OSP production in at least ¼ acre of land. This suggests a major shift from a traditionally pastoralist community to a crop farming community.