BRAC began introducing the orange-fleshed sweet potato in the central and southwestern regions of the country in 2014, with the goal of improving the nutrition of about 19,200 vulnerable and poor households. While Uganda’s stunting rate of 33% is one of the highest in the world, stunting rates in the two regions averaged nearly 47% for boys and about 35% for girls under 2, according to a survey of 7,694 households in April-July, 2014.
Experts say Uganda is a nutritional paradox: Under-nutrition occurs even in agriculturally productive, relatively prosperous regions — and despite the fact Uganda is the dominant exporter of food staples in eastern Africa.
Sarah Nakyngwe, 38, said she used to have to beg for food to feed her seven children, but her life has changed since she got a job promoting the orange-fleshed sweet potato. Nakyngwe joined BRAC’s microfinance group and leased a more productive 1.5-acre plot of farmland. She also began working in a beauty salon in the village. Now, there is enough money and food to go around, and an added benefit: Nakyngwe’s husband sees her in a new light and supports her efforts to earn a living outside the home, she said.
The Ugandan government is preparing a large-scale $30 million project to build on BRAC’s work and jumpstart cultivation of the crop throughout the country. The new project is financed by a grant from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program housed at the World Bank and funded by multiple countries.
The World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab is also studying the impact of the BRAC pilot project, to learn whether women are more likely to adopt the crop for its nutritional value or its market potential, said economists Markus Goldstein and Niklas Buehren.
“One of the big issues in Africa is that women earn significantly less than men in agriculture,” said Goldstein. The Gender Innovation Lab study is “trying to figure out how to close that gap.”
Data from six countries in Africa indicate that female farmers get less yield per hectare than male farmers, partly because women’s farms have less male labor.
In Uganda, women usually don’t have enough money to hire labor, while men grow more labor-intensive cash crops such as coffee and sugarcane, according to a report on gender and intra-household dynamics in the sweet potato project areas.
Most landowners are men and men also have greater access to farming tools, fertilizer, and other inputs than women, said the report. It added that men “tended to take over the control of the crops that are classified as female preferred if these attracted big commercial value and return.”
The Gender Innovation Lab study will look at whether female farmers’ head start with the orange-fleshed sweet potato in Uganda can give them an advantage as the crop becomes more popular and profitable.
Adoption of the crop is the first thing that needs to happen, said Buehren. “Everything else cascades from that.”