Eritrea Launches a Massive Initiative to Promote Sweet Potato in Addressing Malnutrition Among Children
Sweet Potato: A Nutritious Crop with a Zero-wastage
The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) has launched a great initiative to promote sweet potato throughout the country in collaboration with the Ministries of Health and Education as well as the local administrations. According to this initiative, the MoA has begun integrated awareness raising programs so that all villages and schools start cultivating sweet potato with in their premises during the course of 2023. For that matter, this program has been included as one of the MoA top priority areas.
The Public Relations Division of the MoA has interviewed Mr. Mussie Fekadu, Head of Bio-technology Unit at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), and Ms. Asmeret Damir, a Sweet Potato Promoter.
Question (Q): Mr Mussie, when was sweet potato first introduced in Eritrea?
Answer (A): Sweet potato was introduced in Eritrea in 1998. Then, 19 varieties were imported from International Potato Center (CIP) – a leading potato research institute based in Kenya. NARI carried out various adaptability trials; and after a long-time trials, five promising varieties were selected. Starting from 2010, the selected varieties were piloted in some farmers; especially around the Sub-regions of Debarwa and Dekemhare.
Q: What were the efforts made to promote the crop at that time?
A: First, we tried our best to produce adequate sweet potato tubers. Concurrently, we conducted numerous awareness raising programs through extension services, media out lets and organizing demonstrations in villages, hotels, and other places.
Q: But the crop was not popularized as planned. What was the reason?
A: Since the crop was new to most of the Eritrean society, it was difficult to be easily adopted. In addition, many farmers were suspicious to aggressively cultivate it due to fear of sustainable demand for the crop. Moreover, its relatively long time (4-6 months) growing period was not accepted by some farmers.
Q: What’s, then, the MoA doing to avoid these hitches?
A: Currently, the MoA is promoting sweet potato in such a way that it includes all the relevant government bodies; and also the beneficiaries at the same time. In addition, since its base is going to be schools and villages, the awareness is expected to increase. Most importantly, the current initiative is, geared towards children under five years of age because at this stage it is extra-ordinarily crucial to avoid malnutrition and, therefore, is easy to be adopted by the targeted families. In line with this, the ministry will strive to get varieties with shorter cropping cycle.
Let’s come back to the advantages of sweet potato.
A: Sweet potato has tremendous nutritional benefits. For instance, the orange fleshed sweet potato has high beta-carotene (Vitamin A); 7-8 times higher when compared to carrots. This type of nutrient is very important; especially for children under five years of age. It has also got folic acid which is very important for females and pregnant mothers. Generally, it has high potassium, carbohydrates, vitamin C, Sodium; proteins, fiber, sugar and fat. Sweet potato has also medicinal values. Its iron content can treat anemia; its high potassium can regulate heart beats and blood pressure. All in all, sweet potato is a very important crop for mental and physical development of a child. Hence, mothers are advised to start feeding their children from six months onward.
Q: How can it be prepared?
A: It can be prepared in a number of ways based on its objective. For example, it can be prepared in a form of dried powder to be added as a food supplement for children. It can also be consumed easily in a soup or mashed form. Even people living with diabetic can take it for its sugar type is not as harmful as the simple sugars.
Q: Let’s move to its agronomic practices. How is its adaptability evaluated in our country’s climate?
A: Sweet potato is very adaptable to Eritrea’s climate. It can grow almost everywhere in the country. Since it is very easy to propagate, a farmer doesn’t need to buy seed potato. What you need is just a vine to be planted. It is also worthy to mention that it is a rewarding crop. You can harvest 400-500 quintals per hectare. In addition, the crop is resistant to diseases, drought; and can grow with limited water uptake.
Another advantage of sweet potato is that its leaves can be consumed both by humans and animals. Researches have shown that sweet potato leaves increase milk production in dairy animals. Therefore, every part of the plant can be consumed with zero-wastage.
Q: Let’s discuss the crop’s cultivation cycle.
A: Sweet potato can be grown almost throughout the year in highlands, lowlands and midlands. The one you plant in the highlands can also be planted in the lowland. To identify the best growing seasons, trials were conducted in summer, winter, and autumn. It was found that the best season for optimum production is from February up to June/ July. During these seasons, production reaches up to 500 quintals per hectare. In the other seasons, production is relatively lower. Moreover, it gives better production when planted in the lowlands. We have tried it in Goluj and Shambko. The ones planted in Shambko were more productive than the Halhale’s trials.
Q: Any final words…
A: Taking its holistic advantage; especially as a nutritious food for children, I would like to urge farmers, schools and all relevant partners to do more to produce sweet potato; and move parallel with the Ministry’s momentum. If anyone wants information about sweet potato, he or she can contact agriculture experts in their vicinity; or they can ask for the already prepared and distributed booklet that contains information on management of sweet potato, nutritional values, health benefits and also its importance as animal feed.
Thank you very much Mr. Mussie Fekadu
A Brief Interview with Ms. Asmeret Damir: A Sweet Potato Promoter
Q: Please, introduce us with yourself
A: My name is Asmeret Damir. I am married, and a mother of five children. As a profession, I am interested in food preparation; and I have already published a book titled ‘Mistir Tsahilna (ምስጢር ጻሕልና)’ literally meaning – ‘The Secret of our Traditional Dish’. The book focuses on food preparation mainly from easily accessible and affordable crops like cereals pulses and oil crops. Currently, I am a member of the Eritrean Women in Agri-business Association (EWAA); and playing a role as a promoter of sweet potato.
Q: What led you to prepare food products from sweet potato?
A: I have good contact with many MoA experts. I was acquainted with the ministry when I was preparing my book. I frequently go there to get information. It was at this juncture that I heard about sweet potato from the Public Relations office of the ministry. Then, I started to search more about sweet potato and was impressed by its importance as children’s food. So, I went on and downloaded more videos on its preparations. I also received a booklet from the ministry. Then after, I prepared some food and cookies and shared them with my family and neighbors to get comments with regards to its taste and its looks.
Q: What kind of recipes have you, so far, prepared with sweet potato?
A: I have prepared it in a form of biscuits, snacks with sesame seed, chips, juice, jams and bread “Hmbasha” and presented them in the COFWB monthly bazaar; and MoA New Year Celebration. When I displayed my products at the bazaar, the ministry sent an expert to give me more information; and accordingly, I was encouraged to upgrade what I started. Now, I have managed to prepare it in a form of soup, vegetable stew, porridge etc. at home. When I distributed the juice, jams, flour, biscuits, cakes and chips to the market, the consumers’ feedback was very motivating. As per the comments received, I use red paper for the chips, sesame seed for the cakes, parsley, garlic and green chilly for the vegetable stew; and citrus fruit flavors like lemon for the juice and jams to moderate its sweetness. When I tried with these flavors, people don’t even notice they are taking sweet potato.
Q: What were, then, the major feedback regarding its nutritional values?
A: The feedback was very encouraging. Children and lactating mothers liked the powdered sweet potato and also the juice. I have found also children to be fond of the cookies. The sweet cake and the traditional bread (Himbasha) were also liked by many people. People were coming back to buy more when I displayed it at the bazaar.
Q: Your future plans, please
A: I will closely work with the MoA to promote sweet potato until it becomes a staple food in families with children under the age of five. I have already started preparing powdered children’s food supplement by mixing it with dried fish. My next plan is to test its nutritional values and shelf life in the National Animal and Plant Health Laboratory (NAPHL) of the MoA. I have also made contacts with the Ministry of Marine Resources for a sustained supply of dried fish. I hope to see this happening very soon. Moreover, I will try to prepare a comprehensive menu for people of all ages.
Q: Any final word you would like to add?
A: First, I commend the timely initiative of the MoA to promote sweet potato. I, then, urge everyone to do her/ his part in the realization of the MoA’s and its partners plans to provide our children with safe and nutritious food.
Moreover, I would like to thank the MoA for their continuous support. And, it’s worthy to remind the ministry and farmers to secure the supply of sweet potato throughout the year in addition to what is being done in promotional works.
Thank you Ms. Asmeret