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Sweet potatoes: Why Africa has a love (and sometimes hate) affair with the tuber

Joy Ho/NPR

Updated November 25, 2021 at 10:48 AM ET

Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated.

The sweet potato evokes surprisingly strong feelings — and not just from the pro- and anti-marshmallow lobbies.

It is a staple of the African diet. And Africans feel passionately about it. It kindles warm memories. It's a neglected food that deserves a higher profile because of its nutritional value.

And yet some people can't stand it!

We're sharing the perspectives of three African sweet potato eaters and a U.S. food scientist who's bringing sweet potatoes to more tables in Africa.

'My sweet potato, please pass the sweet potatoes'

Growing up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe, I liked to sing the song "Chimbambaira chiri mupoto. Ndodya nani?"

In Shona, my mother language, that means: "That sweet potato in the pot. Who should I eat it with?"

In the early 1990s, the song was popularized by the Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi. After I moved to the U.S., this number became my favorite Thanksgiving song as it celebrates both the amazing tuber and the joys of companionship.

In my village, sweet potatoes came in many colors, shapes and tastes. Everything from round to long and slender, white to deep purple skin, white to yellow flesh, supersweet to nutty flavor.

My mother loved the easy preparation (boil and serve), but we also ate them raw or roasted them on an open fire. There is simply no bad way to prepare sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato
/ Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Sweet Potato

At some point sweet potatoes faded from our diets as more farmers started growing Irish potatoes. It's easy to understand why. They could grow more white potatoes than sweet potatoes in the same unit of land, and growing time was shorter.

But the white potato is no match for the sweet potato in nutritional value. Loaded with vitamins (A, C, B1, B2, B3 and B6) and minerals (copper, manganese, phosphorus and potassium), sweet potatoes rival any superfood at a fraction of the cost. White potatoes have fewer and lower levels of vitamins and minerals. Nonetheless, Irish potatoes became commonplace. In the 1990s and early 2000s, sweet potatoes were an "orphan crop," largely ignored by agricultural development organizations.

Thanks to efforts to breed and distribute improved varieties of sweet potatoes, they're making a comeback in many African countries. These varieties are rewarding for farmers — more harvest for the same amount of effort. They're sweeter to the taste. And they have higher levels of vitamin A than past generations of sweet potatoes.

Going beyond the world of food, "sweet potato" is also an endearing term used by many Zimbabweans. As teenage boys we composed love letters with lines like "You will forever be my sweet potato" or signed "Your sweet potato." Very few foods have made this magical leap into the world of romance. Yes, I admit to uttering the words, "My sweet potato, please pass the sweet potatoes."

Edward Mabaya is an agricultural economist with a passion for uplifting smallholder farmers in Africa. He is a 2016 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @edmabaya

Orange is the powerhouse color

As a Coloradoan, I have fond memories of my grandmother's delicious sweet potato Thanksgiving dish: mashed, lots of brown sugar mixed in and melted marshmallows on top. I adored it.

But my strongest sweet potato memory is from 2003, when I was just starting to introduce orange-fleshed sweet potatoes into one of the poorest provinces in Central Mozambique. Zambèzia province had taken in more than 1 million people who were internally displaced during the country's 15-year civil war, and malnutrition was quite evident. Sixty-nine percent of young children were suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, people only knew of sweet potato varieties that were white inside — the types that came to Africa from South America in the 1600s. Unfortunately, white-fleshed varieties have no beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. One small orange-fleshed root meets the daily vitamin A needs of a young child.

(And we're talking sweet potatoes, not yams. In America, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are often incorrectly called yams — a totally different tuber crop (Dioscorea spp.) grown widely in West Africa that is white inside.)

We'd go from village to village, invite leaders and women with young children to come to a cooking demonstration and offer a sample of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. The children were immediately attracted to the color of the boiled roots and dug in. I remember one young child, about 3 years old, who just kept eating: 1 potato, 2 then 3. He was so happy and so hungry.

When he reached for a fourth sweet potato, I told his mother this was just too much all at once, he would make himself sick. I went home knowing that children would happily eat orange sweet potatoes. And having tasted the roots, the mothers readily accepted the planting material of the sweet potato to grow for the next season.

The International Potato Center and its partners are now promoting vitamin A-rich, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in 14 sub-Saharan Africa countries as "the sweet that gives health." We are also advocating the use of steamed and mashed orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as a substitute for 35 percent of wheat flour in bread.

So give thanks to this flexible, climate-resilient source of calories that can help bring health and wealth to smallholder farmers. And in this difficult year of floods and droughts, vines are being distributed to disaster-affected households in Madagascar, Ethiopia and Mozambique to get sweet potato production back on track.

Jan Low is principal scientist at the International Potato Center, and one of four 2016 World Food Prize laureates for her "efforts in breeding and disseminating the orange-fleshed sweet potato."

Fuel For An 8-Mile Run To School

A boiled sweet potato and a glass of milk were my daily staple as a kid growing up in rural western Uganda. That was the morning meal that kept me going during my daily 8.8-mile run to school (and home again). There quite literally was no such thing as a school lunch (and unfortunately there still isn't in many of the public primary schools I've visited across the country).

Lack of food is a serious and ongoing problem.

Accordingto USAID, in Uganda "33 percent of children under age five are stunted (have low height-for-age), while 4 percent are acutely malnourished or wasted (have low weight-for-height)."

And some households may only have one meal a day.

I know firsthand how challenging it can be to learn on an empty stomach. Indeed, a lack of sufficient energy and nutrients has been linked to "poor mental development and school achievement as well as behavioral abnormalities," reports a study on "Long-Lasting Effects of Undernutrition."

Growing up, I sometimes wished for a more balanced breakfast and maybe a lunch. But looking back now, I'm grateful to my grandmother for the daily provision of a sweet potato and a glass of milk.

And looking ahead, I am worried about all the schoolchildren of Uganda. Schools have been closed for more than a year because of the pandemic. The president has promised they will reopen in January. Our local and national governments need to address food shortages in our communities, or millions will return to school eager to learn — but hungry.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For Uganda. He's an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, a 2015 Global Fellow at Acumen and an alumnus of the Global Health Corps Fellowship. He tweets @Kassaga4UG.

My hate affair with sweet potatoes

Growing up in the 1980s and early '90s on the Kenyan Coast, I did not have the privilege to choose the foods I could eat. Rather, my parents would serve my siblings and me the food that was in season or that had survived the scorching sun, insect pests and plant diseases — harvested from their farm or purchased at the market.

Most of the time, these food crops included cassava, pumpkin, the "boko boko" banana — and sweet potatoes. Plenty of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and cassava were the go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner food. They were the everyday food whether we liked it or not. Of course, there was only one way they were cooked — and that was by boiling. Day in day out, we would consume these foods. Ultimately, it got to a point where we could not take sweet potatoes and cassava anymore. And yes, there were times we chose to go hungry rather than eat sweet potatoes. That's right: We children would rather skip lunch and dinner and go hungry than eat the same old sweet potatoes and cassava.

These experiences with sweet potatoes and cassava while growing up made me hate these foods as an adult. And I am not alone. Many of my family members, including my brother and three sisters, do not love sweet potatoes and cassava at all. As a matter of fact, after we grew up, our parents stopped growing them. No one and I mean no one — had any more appetite for these root vegetables.

My hate for sweet potatoes is still active today. I know it is many people's favorite food, especially during Thanksgiving, but as for me, I still say NO to sweet potatoes. They remind me of what it's like to grow up without a balanced diet, without being able to choose what kind of food you'd like to eat each day.

But in a corner of my heart, I do appreciate the sweet potato. I'm grateful that my parents had sweet potatoes to serve us. And maybe one day – say in another 10 years or so — I'll overcome my negative feelings and see what it's like to eat a luxurious sweet potato side dish – perhaps topped with marshmallows!

Esther Ngumbi is a researcher at the University of Illinois and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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