Over the past decade, a powerful new global health tool has emerged in an unlikely form —the North American sweet potato. One of the sweet potato’s most passionate champions is Dr. Maria Andrade, a Mozambican with a PhD in plant breeding. For more than 20 years, Andrade has applied her scientific skills to breed drought tolerant sweet potato varieties that are rich in Vitamin A – a critical micronutrient for pregnant women and children under-five.
Though when she first started out, Andrade remembers no one in Mozambique had seen an orange potato before, today she says, “I guarantee you, if you come to southern Mozambique, there is not a farmer who has not heard of the orange fleshed sweet potato.”
The short term benefits are improved nutrition, but in the long term, Maria is enabling farmers to realise that they now have ownership over their own food and nutrition security needs as well as those of their communities. Drought is a recurrent problem in Mozambique and other sub-Saharan Africa countries. Andrade’s development of “accelerated breeding schemes” allow for a more rapid multi-locational, agro-ecological evaluation and subsequent release of sweet potato varieties which will meet the needs of small-scale farmers.
Early OFSP varieties had been widely disseminated as a post-disaster response to the floods that Mozambique witnessed in 2000. However, these varieties could not withstand the dry periods which Mozambique also experiences. In 2012, Maria reapplied her skills and knowledge to produce fifteen Vitamin A rich orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties which were released from her breeding programme. These varieties were given names to recognise other champions for nutrition and OFSP – e.g. “Lourdes” (the former Head of the Ministry of Health Nutrition Unit); “Bella” (Head of Agricultural Extension) and “Tio Joe” a long standing supporter of the sweet potato breeding programme in Mozambique.
Andrade believes that Mozambique is now sustainably equipped to nurture the future of its people’s nutritional needs because the sweet potato is “making the nation healthier and more productive.”Andrade is spearheading what she deems an “orange brand” for her country to identify with and take pride in—a great future born from a small root.