Feeding on sweet potatoes morning, noon and night

The potato flesh is consumed including leaves that contain high nutritional value. [File, Standard]

Ravaging drought has drastically affected food security in arid Samburu County, leaving families starving.

Livestock, the major source of income there, are dying, a situation which has affected pregnant and lactating mothers and children-especially those below five.

Rivers and streams have dried up, forcing families to migrate hundreds of kilometres searching for water and pasture.

Veronicah Lopasho, a mother of three at Rengao in Marala town laments the death of livestock has also led to loss of jobs further eroding income levels.

But Lopasho is lucky. She is a member of a support group funded by Child Fund to grow a newly researched orange fleshed sweet potato variety which is rich in several vitamins.

The orange-fleshed sweet potato is grown via irrigation leaving her with surplus to sell for income generation.

“I am happy that my children are stronger despite the drought. They feed on potatoes in the morning and at night, and luckily, if I sell some, I buy other food varieties to supplement the diet,” said Lopasho.

Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) research scientist, John Mpalale, explained that the orange fleshed variety is rich in vitamin A, which enhances development of children, pregnant and lactating women.

The potato flesh is consumed including leaves that contain high nutritional value and Samburu is ideal as the variety is suitably adaptive for arid and semi-arid areas as “it can easily be produced, and supply adequate nutrients to vulnerable groups, reducing malnutrition,” said Mpalale.

Samburu County Nutrition Coordinator, Delphine Kaaman, said the situation has been worsened by erratic weather patterns in the last two years.

“Nutritional situation in Samburu is classified under acute malnutrition because the majority of children are starving, and if supplied with meals, they are not rich in nutrients,” said Kaaman adding that starch foods are the most consumed while proteins, calcium and vitamins are hardly consumed.

Kaaman explained that as mitigation, the department of health is collaborating with Ministry of agriculture and irrigation, to revamp agriculture production to boost food security.

 “Apart from the orange fleshed sweet potato being rich in Vitamins C, vitamin D, and other minerals, most importantly, it is rich in vitamin A, which is highly advisable for vulnerable groups because of their low immunity, more so lactating and pregnant mothers, including children,” noted Kaaman.

Vitamin A is essential in maintaining healthy vision, ensuring normal functioning of the immune system, and aids in proper growth and development of babies in the womb.

Kaaman added that they also help fight skin deficiencies.

The orange-fleshed sweet potato is grown via irrigation leaving her with surplus to sell for income generation. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

According to studies, it is recommended that men get 900 mcg, women 700 mcg and children and adolescents 300–600 mcg of vitamin A, every day.

“Pregnant women are encouraged to eat more vitamin A to help in development of unborn babies, a component that is found in the potato variety,” noted Kaaman.

Sintalian Lekalesoi is among pregnant women whose health has improved over time, after increased intake of the orange fleshed sweet potato.

The mother of two developed general body weakness after conceiving her third baby and medics at the Maralal Hospital found that she had deficiency anemia of 10HB.

High intake of iron was advised, but supply of foods rich in iron was a challenge due to the drought.

To boost immunity and increased blood levels, doctors advised her to feed on orange fleshed sweet potatoes. “I am no longer experiencing severe constant headaches and my doctor said I will not require transfusion as my HB is at 12,” said Lekalesoi.

 At Antenatal (ANC) clinics, pregnant women are also given folic acid, for nutritional supplement.

Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato Project officer, Isaac Kariuki, said supplying the variety to schools twice a week is aimed at keeping learners in school as “children stay at home due to lack of food at family level, but through supply of the potatoes, it has attracted enrollment. The single meal means a lot to the learners who are also active.”  

The sweet potato project also supplements the school feeding programme during drought season.

Child Fund is supporting a total of 21 ECD schools in Samburu North and Samburu South like Rangua ECD, under the project established in November 2020.

Rangua ECD, for instance, has 109 learners, down from 160 in January due to the ravaging drought.

Raphaela Erimam, a teacher, said monitoring enrollment is a challenge due to immigration of families searching for pasture and water and sometimes parents just send their “children to school, just to get a meal.”  

Rangua ECD depends on food supply programme by the county government which is sometimes inconsistent. The school received rice and beans last month, after one and half years- and this will only last for two months.

“We depend on sweet potatoes to keep pupils in school, because the supply we have from the feeding programme can only last us for two weeks,” added Erimam. Food shortage affects performance and concentration in class.

 Kariuki said the orange fleshed sweet potato variety is a game changer considering livestock is the major source of income, but which is currently affected by drastic weather patterns.