Teach a Man to Grow Sweet Potatoes is the Mantra in Malawi

November 30, 2017
Robyn FernandoPeace Corps Volunteer Robyn Fernando’s counterparts, Annie and Masofa, checking the sweet potato leaves for damage.

Robyn Fernando, a native of Seattle, Washington, is a Peace Corps health volunteer in rural Malawi. Her community, and others like it, struggled under the strain of extended drought followed by devastating floods last year. These weather extremes decimated their maize yields, leaving communities without their primary source of food and income.

As a health volunteer working to improve nutrition in her community, Fernando faced a particularly vexing dilemma. Without adequate food or income, her community would have no way of nourishing itself. She turned to vitamin A-rich sweet potato as a solution.

By the time the village’s maize reserves had begun to dwindle, farmers were ready to harvest the 600 sweet potato plots Fernando helped them plant. 

“Luckily, the district had something else they would be able to depend on. Even though the rain was lacking and not sufficient enough for maize to grow, the sweet potato was able to thrive. At the handful of gardens I visited, we were able to harvest kilogram after kilogram of delicious orange goodness. The harvests were bountiful, which created a much-needed relief for many families,” Fernando said.

Getting people to accept this orange-fleshed sweet potato wasn’t easy at first. It wasn’t a familiar plant nor food to her community members, and Fernando first had to teach them how to properly cultivate the vegetable. After the harvests began, she and a local counterpart conducted numerous cooking demonstrations to show people the many ways they could prepare and eat orange-fleshed sweet potato.

They taught people to dry and mill the sweet potatoes into a fine flour that they could use to make a nutritious version of nsima, a popular local dish made from corn flour. 

“Many were unsure of it at first, thinking their beloved maize nsima was being threatened, but after trying it and learning of its nutritious value, they were willing to let something new into their lives,” Fernando said. 

She also taught community members how to prepare a nutritious porridge called mphala for school children in the morning using sweet potatoes, as well as how to combine the sweet potatoes with other locally available foods to make improved versions of other common Malawian dishes. 

Like many of her fellow Peace Corps volunteers across Sub-Saharan Africa, Fernando’s efforts are helping address “hidden hunger” (or micronutrient deficiency) in her community, a major public health problem in developing countries where one out of three people lack essential vitamins and minerals. This has a lifelong negative effect on young children as vitamin deficiencies between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday can have severe physical and mental repercussions, especially on vision and immune system strength. 

Easy to grow, nutritious and full of vitamin A, sweet potatoes are a staple solution for volunteers like Fernando in the fight against hidden hunger.  

“One of the things I love about the Peace Corps is that their mission is to create sustainable and lasting change in the countries they’re in, not just make quick fixes,” she said. “It takes a while to introduce something new to a community and have them wholeheartedly accept it, but with patience and perseverance, they can benefit from the results for a lifetime.”

“I believe there’s an old saying that perfectly epitomizes the Peace Corps’ and my goals in Malawi: Give a man a sweet potato, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to grow sweet potatoes, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Peace Corps is one of a number of U.S. government agencies and departments working together under Feed the Future to combat global hunger and poverty. Peace Corps is contributing on a global scale to mitigating food insecurity, improving nutrition outcomes for mothers and children, addressing climate change and resiliency, and reducing poverty. Peace Corps Volunteers, in collaboration with their host country national community counterparts, implement activities that will help the communities in which they serve have greater food security. You can read Robyn Fernando's complete blog here.