For sometime before 2017, officials at Iwawa Rehabilitation Center, which has been home for thousands of delinquent youths, noticed that young men brought there, arrived with a common medical problem; night blindness.
The Iwawa facility is located on Lake Kivu. Young men picked from streets of urban centers, many with serious drug addictions, end up at the center. As result of the inhumane conditions they would have endured, such as having no place to sleep and very little to eat, the young men develop illnesses, some of which become lifelong if not treated.
Night blindness, or poor vision in dim light, was one such serious illness. It is caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Later, the condition evolves into dryness of eyes with keratin accumulation on the conjunctiva (Bitot’s spots).
Eventually, when left untreated, the eyes become dry, dull, or milky corneal appearance (corneal xerosis), with corneal softening and ulceration (keratomalacia).
There are scientific medical treatments available. The problem though, according Theophile Ntashyeneza, a senior manager at the Iwawa center, it would be very costly to treat all the cases as they are too many.
“When evening came, and in the night, the conditions of some patients worsened so much so that they needed to be aided to walk around,” said Ntashyeneza.
In 2017, an unlikely solution emerged. A diet of Orange-fleshed Sweet Potatoes (OFSP) was introduced, to be given to new arrivals diagnosed with night blindness.
Vitamin A is a crucial nutrient for maintaining good health, particularly for proper vision, immune function, and cell growth and development. It is an essential nutrient that our bodies cannot produce on their own, so we must obtain it from our diet.
Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A, according to the International Potato Center.
They are one of the richest sources of dietary beta-carotene, a provitamin A carotenoid. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body. The characteristic orange color of these sweet potatoes is due to the high concentration of beta-carotene.
Consuming orange-fleshed sweet potatoes regularly can help meet your vitamin A requirements, notes the International Potato Center.
The specific amount of vitamin A in sweet potatoes can vary depending on factors such as the variety, size, and cooking method. However, in general, a medium-sized orange-fleshed sweet potato can provide around 400% or more of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, says the Center.
What is the “dosage”?
It’s important to note that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it requires dietary fat for optimal absorption. Including a small amount of healthy fat, such as olive oil or avocado, when consuming sweet potatoes can enhance the absorption of vitamin A.
At the Iwawa Center, officials explained that immediately on arrival, the youths undergo medical screening. For those with signs and symptoms of night blindness, they are put on a seven-day diet of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. These potatoes are added to their lunch and dinner plates throughout the treatment period. They are added vegetables and greens which the Center grows on a relatively large scale,
“After we had launched this dietary program, the results were immediate among those eating the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. That has remained the schedule to date,” said Ntashyeneza.
The facility produces at least 3.5 tonnes of these potatoes every season, allowing for constant supply throughout the year.
Apart from the Iwawa Rehabilitation Center, some prisons have recently began growing the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to supplement their food needs.
According to official statistics, over 55 percent of inmates depend solely on food provided by prisons. These do not receive any food from back home. The potatoes are considered as a durable solution to feed these inmates.
In regions where vitamin A deficiency is a concern, promoting the cultivation and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes has been considered an effective strategy to combat this nutritional deficiency. The high vitamin A content of these sweet potatoes can make a significant contribution to meeting the dietary needs of individuals, particularly in areas where other sources of vitamin A are limited.
Where did these potatoes originate?
Overall, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are a nutritious and delicious food that can provide a substantial amount of vitamin A, supporting various aspects of health and well-being.
The exact origins of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are difficult to pinpoint precisely due to their long history of cultivation and natural crossbreeding. However, studies suggest that they were first cultivated in the tropical regions of what is now known as Peru and Ecuador.
From there, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes spread throughout the Americas and became an important staple crop for various indigenous cultures. They were highly valued for their nutritional content, adaptability to different growing conditions, and storage capabilities.
In Rwanda, they have been available, grown at subsistence level mixed with other types of potatoes, for a long time. The orange-fleshed have only of as recent as 2015, become a crop grown for commercial purposes.
There is also a national government program launched in 2021 whereby orange-fleshed sweet potato cultivars (cuttings) were distributed freely.
The program is called ‘Hinga Weze’, run by the Rwanda Agricultural and Animal Resources Board (RAB). For the 2021, the program’s figures show it distributed 554 tonnes and 689 kilograms of cultivar to over 100,000 farmers in 10 districts.
According to Jean Ndirigwe, RAB’s Senior Research Fellow and Head of Sweet Potato Sub-program, the production for orange-fleshed sweet potatoes is still very low compared to the increasing demand. It is partly the motivation behind the above distribution of cultivar to selected farmers to grow these highly needed potatoes on a bigger scale.
Orange sweet potatoes are being grown in Gakenke, Rulindo, Muhanga, Ngororero and Kanyonza districts with government said to be planning to take this variety to other parts of the country.
Internationally, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are used to make different products such as flour, puree, dried chips, juice, bread, noodles, candy, pap, and pectin.
In Rwanda, the use of these kinds of potatoes to make other products, is growing. Sina Gerard/Ese Urwibutso, a company producing a variety of food and drink products, makes bread and doughnuts from the orange fleshed sweet potatoes.
Growing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes can present several challenges, depending on the specific climate, soil conditions, and pests that are prevalent in a particular region.
Ndirigwe, the RAB government agency potato expert and officials at the Iwawa center, shared some of the challenges from their experience.
Climate: Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes thrive in warm and tropical climates. They require a long growing season with temperatures between 70°F and 90°F (21°C to 32°C). If the climate is too cold or experiences frost, it can inhibit the growth of sweet potatoes or lead to crop failure.
Soil conditions: these potatoes prefer well-drained, loose, and sandy soil with a slightly acidic pH between 5.8 and 6.2. Heavy clay soils can lead to poor root development and increased risk of diseases. Additionally, the soil should be rich in organic matter to provide the necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth.
Water requirements: the orange fleshed sweet potatoes need consistent moisture, particularly during the initial growth phase. However, excessive water or waterlogged conditions can cause root rot and fungal diseases. Proper irrigation practices are essential to ensure an optimal balance of moisture in the soil.
Pests and diseases: this type of potatoes can be susceptible to various pests and diseases, which can affect plant growth and reduce yields. Common pests include sweet potato weevils, aphids, nematodes, and whiteflies. Diseases such as sweet potato scab, fusarium wilt, and viruses can also pose significant challenges. Implementing integrated pest management strategies and selecting disease-resistant varieties can help mitigate these issues.
Weeds: Weeds compete with sweet potato plants for nutrients, water, and sunlight. They can significantly impact crop yield and quality. Proper weed management techniques, such as mulching, hand weeding, or herbicide application, are crucial to control weed growth and support the healthy development of sweet potato plants.
Storage and post-harvest handling: After harvesting, sweet potatoes require proper storage conditions to maintain their quality and prevent spoilage. They should be stored in a cool and dry environment to prevent sprouting, decay, and loss of nutritional value.
Addressing these challenges often requires a combination of proper agricultural practices, disease and pest management strategies, and knowledge of the local climate and soil conditions. By taking these factors into consideration and implementing appropriate measures, farmers can increase the chances of successfully growing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
An eye care specialist at Kabgayi Hospital Eye Unit, a nationally acclaimed provider of the service, said more scientific studies are needed for this kind of treatment.
The specialist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that at least “a three-year scientific study is required to medically prove changes that happen for those with blindness who are recommended to eat orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.”
However, he agrees that lack of Vitamin A causes blindness, adding, “it is why we recommend people to eat enough vegetables and make it a habit” to take care of their whole body to prevent diseases.