On opposite sides of the African continent, two Australia Awards Alumnae from Ghana and Kenya are using their Award-gained knowledge to tackle micro-nutrient deficiency in children and mothers while contributing to food security and the building of productive value chains for small farmers and entrepreneurs.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, malnutrition contributes significantly to child mortality and accounts for either underweight or stunted growth among 33% of children in developing countries. By awarding Masters Scholarships and short courses in agriculture, the Australian government is partnering with African countries to increase the production of crops that will reduce malnutrition while contributing to economic development through increased agribusiness opportunities.
One such crop is orange flesh sweet potato which contains high levels of beta-carotene (Vitamin A) and grows well in semiarid climates. Vitamin A is essential for the functioning of the human immune system. It also helps increase resistance to disease and protects against blindness. According to the World Health Organisation, Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness among young children and night blindness among pregnant women.
Australia Awards Alumnae, Mildred Songbanyere Suglo from Ghana and Romana Mbinya from Kenya, both agricultural officers, are promoting the cultivation and consumption of Orange Flesh Sweet Potato (OFSP) to increase Vitamin A in the diets of expectant mothers and young children.
Mildred graduated from the University of Canberra with a Masters in Nutrition in 2012 and works as an Agriculture Officer at the National Directorate of Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD) within Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture. On return from her studies in Australia, Mildred joined a project that promotes OFSP production and consumption in Ghana. “My studies in Australia furnished me with knowledge on the interaction between food, health and environment in relation to addressing malnutrition.”
Mildred explains that the micro-nutrient enriched sweet potatoes are one of the crops targeted by the Ghanaian government for food security and for eliminating high (*75.8 %) vitamin A deficiency among children under five years. “The Ministry of Food and Agriculture in its Agriculture Sector Investment Plan (2011-2015) acknowledges that the ultimate goal of food production and consumption is adequate nutrition. Thus agriculture is essential for improved nutrition in any community.”
Working with her supervisor and colleagues of the Nutrition Unit, the aim of the project is to sensitise households, caterers and bakers on using OFSP for different food forms. As a result, food trials were conducted at WIAD and recipes compiled for training of the target groups. In 2014, twenty District WIAD Officers stationed at sweet potato growing districts were trained at Bunso, in the Eastern region. Similarly, 35 bakers belonging to the Tabora Flour Users Association in Accra were trained on incorporating OFSP into bread and pastries in 2015. In addition, a demonstration was conducted for 80 farmers and food processors in the Upper East region in 2015. To further inform and educate community members, a brochure on the Health Benefits of OFSP has been developed.
Mildred has ensured that women are included in her project – over 80% of the training beneficiaries are women and more women groups will be trained and monitored in 2016 to assess impact.
Some of the beneficiaries have started income generating activities with OFSP products. There is currently “potaghurt” (potato yoghurt), an OFSP drink and OFSP bread in Ghanaian markets. It is expected that the OFSP value chain will be fully developed for better family nutrition. Mildred is currently monitoring participants trained in 2014 at Bunso to assess how far they have promoted OFSP use in their respective districts. Participants will also share their best practices and identify the challenges they face in developing these value chains.
Mildred credits her Masters in Australia with providing the right environment to be able to make a positive impact on nutrition in Ghana through the OFSP project. “Studying in Australia equipped me with in-depth knowledge and skills in effective nutrition programme planning and implementation. The knowledge gained on sociology of food and nutrition, critical thinking, teamwork and facilitation has played a key role in making this project successful.”
Across the continent, Romana Mbinya, a Senior Agricultural Officer at the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries has recently started a collaborative project in Rangwe Sub-County with the International Centre for Potato that also promotes the production and utilisation of OFSP.
“Families in this region take a lot maize and cassava which are mainly carbohydrates hence introducing the orange fleshed sweet potatoes together with other indigenous food crops will boost household nutritional status especially for children and mothers,” Romana explains.
So far five nurseries have been established (two in the local primary and secondary schools) for multiplying sweet potato vines which will be used to establish bulking sites. The vines will be distributed to over 500 farmers in the Rangwe Sub-County by the beginning of the long rain season.
Romana acknowledges her Australia Awards Masters in Rural Management Systems which she completed in 2014 at the University of Queensland, with giving her the ability and knowledge to engage with rural communities, manage stakeholders and evaluate the impact made by the project. “My course taught me how best to work with the rural communities and how to identify and assist with opportunities. My knowledge on stakeholder management has been crucial in charting collaborative paths. I am now able to promote the objectives of my institution without undermining the work of other stakeholders.”
Romana is also the Sub-County Crops Development Officer for Rangwe so matters on crop production and food security are her responsibility. In collaboration with other staff members her specific roles including mobilising and vetting project beneficiaries, training beneficiaries on nutrition sensitive agriculture, carrying out value addition activities and project monitoring and evaluation.
Though orange flesh sweet potatoes are new to the region, Romana is no stranger at convincing small farmers to adopt new methods and products. She successfully carried out a government food security project in Homabay Sub-County focusing on the provision of subsidised maize and rice seeds to farmer groups. The project has benefitted over 500 households (approximately 3,000 persons) in the sub-county with a production of over 74 tonnes of maize. The availability of this maize will have a long time impact on food prices in the local markets for the next six months. Romana hopes to build on the achievements of the maize project by carrying out capacity building and leveraging on her knowledge of value chains, “My knowledge on agribusiness value chain management will also come in handy when I carry out capacity building for sweet potatoes farmers on marketing their crop. I look forward to training them on how they can build collaboration with other players in the value chain.”
Ultimately, Romana’s aim is to contribute to creating communities that are healthy and productive. “Success to me is a food and nutrition-secure community, sustainable agricultural systems and vibrant and inclusive communities devoid of poverty, hunger and other social and economic inequalities.”