CALS International Programs and CALS SAIGE Hosts World Food Prize Recipient Dr. Jan Low for Monthly Seminar Series

WRITTEN BY: Alex Gordon,

NC State’s CALS International Programs and CALS SAIGE hosted Dr. Jan Low on Tuesday, February 15th for a virtual presentation via Zoom as a part of their monthly seminar series. Low is an agricultural economist with a Ph.D from Cornell University and has long served as a principal scientist for the International Potato Center. She is the recipient of the 2016 World Food Prize along with two sweetpotato breeders who were trained at NCSU–Dr. Robert Mwanga of Uganda and Dr. Maria Andrade of Cape Verde. The three of them have collaborated for the last two decades and were awarded the prize for their efforts introducing biofortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) to the diets of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

The title of Low’s presentation was “Working through Collaborative Partnerships to Exploit the Potential of Sweetpotato to Improve Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa” and she began this presentation by explaining the problem at hand. The dominant varieties of sweetpotato in sub-Saharan Africa are white-fleshed and contain no beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. As a consequence, 48% of children under 5 years of age living in the region are vitamin A deficient. One small root of orange-fleshed sweetpotato, however, provides the daily vitamin A needs for a child of this age range, so introducing it would yield a massive benefit for human health in the region. Low proceeded to explain why it has taken over 25 years to accomplish this seemingly simple task.

This long process was broken up by Low into five distinct phases. The first of these phases involved challenging conventional wisdom about sweetpotato varieties. It was a widely-held belief that African and Asian populations would, as a matter of preference, refuse to eat the orange-fleshed variety of sweetpotato that many people in the Western Hemisphere are accustomed to eating, and early attempts at introducing them into their diets had actually resulted in failure. Regardless, Low and her team forged ahead, and they eventually reached the second phase of the process. This phase was characterized by proving potential to the nutrition community that a food-based approach could make a difference to human health, especially regarding vitamin A. This was followed by the third phase of building the evidence base for the integrated approach mentioned in the previous phase. The fourth and fifth phases both consisted of building partnerships with key institutions.

After her explanation of this five-phase process, Low acknowledged the importance of her aforementioned collaborators in these efforts, NCSU Ph.D holders Robert Mwanga and Maria Andrade, and referred to them as “true believers.” She congratulated NCSU for its vision regarding improving human health.

As a result of its efforts in the early 2000s, Low’s team was able to convince the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to invest heavily in the project. The team was initially given a grant that funded it for eight months, during which the team’s staff conducted surveys, implemented workshops and developed a proposal for a five-year program to continue their work. They also sought out potential future partnerships, and two major partnerships secured was with the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI) and the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) Project.

The efforts made with these two organizations led to Low forming a partnership with another organization, the Association for the Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. Through AGRA, implementation of a process known as the Accelerated Breeding Scheme (ABS) was made possible. This process essentially halved the breeding time of sweetpotato varieties and it lent itself to these varieties being bred in thirteen sub-Saharan African countries, up significantly from the two countries that were breeding them circa 2005.

Through their partnership with SPHI, Dr. Low’s team also established partnerships with institutions such as Emory University. They addressed issues such as improving nutrition for young children and pregnant and lactating women, as well as the need for men to be involved in community nutrition events. A major accomplishment reached through this collaboration was the development and distribution of healthy baby toolkits. These include a feeding bowl, spoon and counseling card, which aim to solve the problems related to portion size and meal frequency, nutrient density/thickness, and dietary diversity and hygiene, respectively. The toolkits are made by a plastics company in Nairobi, Kenya for roughly thirty cents each, and are being used in about five sub-Saharan African countries.

Another current major focus of the team is the creation of OFSP puree. This puree leaves the skin of the potato on to reduce waste, and is shelf-storable for up to three months when used with local preservatives. Currently, most sub-Saharan African countries import most or all of their wheat flour. OFSP puree is more economically valuable than both wheat flour and sweetpotato flour, and Dr. Low’s team has proven this to private sector partnerships. The main challenge in this area is to get the puree to become a highly commercialized product.

Also discussed was the institutionalization of the Training of Trainers Capacity and the partnerships required for it. This Capacity involved the development of ten-day courses consisting of thirteen modules in which participants underwent hands-on learning of how to breed OFSP and to train others to do so. A scientist from the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), Tanya Stathers, was crucial to the creation of these courses. She and Dr. Low’s team worked to build the capacities of universities and other institutions to implement these courses in several SSA countries–namely Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. To coincide with course implementation, implementation guides were also developed in the form of manuals. These manuals are titled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sweetpotato” and were published in five languages–English, Portuguese, Kiswahili, French and Amharic.

Dr. Low also mentioned partnerships for advocacy, specifically two major partners: Helen Keller International and HarvestPlus. These organizations identify and train influential people at national and regional levels to encourage changes in policy. As a result of their efforts, integration of biofortification in national and regional policies has seen tremendous success, and twenty-four countries now have biofortification in their national agriculture, nutrition or food security agendas. However, there is a significant challenge involving the translation of policy into resource investment, as only fifteen countries met an agricultural sector growth target of 6% from 2014-2018.

An important issue addressed was the integration of demand creation campaigns at the local level. According to Low, “no one wakes up saying ‘I feel vitamin A deficient today,’” and that is why demand creation campaigns are necessary. These spread awareness for the importance of good health in general as well as the specific need for vitamin A. Orange-fleshed sweetpotato is marketed as both a good source of this nutrient as well as being particularly affordable. The staff on Dr. Low’s own team, local partners and influential youth all work together to convey these messages, and they make especially good use of the “passionate color of orange” to help get the messages across to people.

A key problem facing the team is the challenge of going to scale. In other words, they strive to figure out how they “reach millions, not just tens of thousands.” After discussing issues relevant to the larger problem, Dr. Low introduced the Scaling Readiness (SR) index. This index ranks both innovation readiness and innovation use on a scale from 0 to 9. She then presented a detailed, completed graph of her own team’s rankings on the SR index. The results were different based upon objectives and countries, but progress had clearly been made.

Low wrapped up the presentation by offering her recommendations of priority areas for future research before thanking the presentation’s hosts and attendees. She closed by mentioning that more information is available at the Sweetpotato Knowledge Portal via Watch the presentation here: Dr. Jan Low