Margaret Simuyu, wearing a patterened dress and standing in her corn field.

In western Kenya, Margaret Simiyu’s flourishing sweetpotatoes provide more than enough to feed her family. Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.

Sweetpotatoes help mothers like Margaret Simiyu raise healthier kids and improve their own health

It’s lunch time at Margaret Simiyu’s house, and orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes are on the menu.

Three dozen mothers and children sit outside Margaret’s mud-walled home, where a community health worker is dishing up mashed sweetpotatoes while discussing the powerful nutritional punch packed inside this sunset-colored vegetable.

Margaret, 38, needs little convincing. She’s already seen improvements in her family’s health since she learned to cultivate orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes and make them part of her family’s diet.

Boosting nutrition and maternal health

Margaret is one of nearly 3,000 women in western Kenya participating in an innovative project called Mama SASHA (Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa), a collaborative effort between PATH and the International Potato Center. The five-year project aims to improve nutrition and health for pregnant women and young children by blending nutrition education, sweetpotato cultivation, and prenatal care.

Margaret was two months pregnant when a health worker dropped by her house to discuss the importance of a healthy diet for her children and herself, including the need to get enough vitamin A. Some 43 million children under age five in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness, disease, and premature death. Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes are rich in beta-carotene that the body can convert into vitamin A.

By going to the local health clinic for prenatal care, Margaret could get vouchers to redeem with local farmers for vine cuttings to grow her own orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes. This inspired her to visit the clinic for prenatal care earlier and more often than she had in previous pregnancies. Each time, the nurse talked with her about good nutrition and how to incorporate the root vegetables into her family’s diet. An agricultural adviser made home visits to offer planting and growing tips.

Serving up better family health

“When I first tasted them, it was really nice,” Margaret says. She was instructed by health workers to prepare the sweetpotatoes with clean utensils and in front of her husband. Gaining the support of men, the primary landholders in most families, is essential to the project’s success.

Seven-month-old Jason sits on Margaret’s lap as she tells the story, a bright-eyed bundle in a pink blanket. Jason was born at a healthy eight-and-a-half pounds, has never been sick, and started crawling earlier than her older children, she says. Even Jason’s older siblings seem to get sick less often now.

Margaret’s flourishing patch of sweetpotatoes provides more than enough to feed her family. She now serves sweetpotatoes three times a week, often in a rich stew made with avocado, ground nuts, and milk. She and her husband plan to pull out some corn to plant more sweetpotatoes and sell surplus roots to earn extra income, providing a welcome economic benefit for this small-scale farming family.

Spreading the word

All of this has made Margaret into a sweetpotato evangelist. She encourages neighbors and friends to add sweetpotatoes to their diets. Community health workers also spread the word through more than 200 local mothers’ clubs like the one that meets at Margaret’s house every month.

At the nearby community health center, nurse Eileen Barasa distributes vine vouchers to pregnant women. She’s seeing remarkable changes at the clinic since the Mama SASHA project began. Connections between the clinic and the community have grown stronger, Barasa says. Immunization rates are up, as is the number of women who give birth in the health facility. Eye and skin infections are down, and women come to the clinic earlier for prenatal care.

Local interest in the project is high, with Mama SASHA enrolling more than three times the number of women originally targeted. Researchers are evaluating the project’s impact on vitamin A status, children’s height and weight, and other health indicators. Meanwhile, participants, community health workers, and health care providers say Mama SASHA is delivering important health benefits and giving health workers new incentives to deliver high-quality services.

“Even some of the men are coming now without their wives to ask for vines,” Barasa says. “It’s a hook, and then we can offer them so many other things.”