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Researchers Earn World Food Prize for Combating Malnutrition

2016 Laureates of The World Food Prize: Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga, Jan Low, Howarth Bouis (left to right) (Courtesy of The World Food Prize)

A team of researchers who developed heartier and more nutrient-rich strains of a sweet potato to help ward off diet-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa is this year’s recipient of the World Food Prize.

The annual international award recognizes the achievements of those who improve the quantity, quality or availability of food around the world.

In a State Department ceremony, Tuesday, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) Administrator Gayle Smith and other officials announced this year’s recipients, three Africa-based researchers with the International Potato Center and a fourth winner who is with the U.S.-based founder of the HarvestPlus Food Policy Research Institute.

The team developed and distributed Vitamin A enriched strains of the orange fleshed sweet potato that could better withstand conditions including drought and disease in Africa.

They launched the multi-year effort in a bid to help combat the effects of Vitamin A deficiency, which can contribute to blindness and premature deaths in children and pregnant women.

The recipients shared their experiences with VOA.

2016 World Food Prize Laureates (Courtesy of The World Food Prize)
2016 World Food Prize Laureates (Courtesy of The World Food Prize)

Pervasive malnutrition

Cape Verde native Maria Andrade said she became involved in the research after traveling to Mozambique in 1996, where she observed high levels of malnutrition in children, as well as diarrhea.

“I found children with serious problems due to Vitamin A deficiency,” said Andrade, a plant scientist with the International Potato Center.

Her colleague, Nairobi-based Jan Low, said another factor that spurred their sweet potato research was the high number of young children in sub-Saharan Africa who were malnourished because of a lack of access to food.

“We just provided a convenient tool for mothers to use to improve the overall nutrition content for the diet of the young child,” she said.

2016 Laureates of The World Food Prize (Courtesy of The World Food Prize)
2016 Laureates of The World Food Prize (Courtesy of The World Food Prize)

Enriched sweet potatoes

The researchers say the enriched sweet potatoes are now being used by about 2 million households, in countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Low said the group hopes to reach 10 million households by 2020

Many of the countries now have active programs for breeding the enriched sweet potatoes, said Uganda-based recipient Robert Mwanga.

The fourth recipient, HarvestPlus founder Howarth Bouis, said work is underway on global plant breeding strategies, including zinc-enriched rice and wheat that is being distributed in South Asia as well as Vitamin A enriched maize and high iron beans that are now being used in several African countries.

“By 2030, we hope to reach a billion people with these bio-fortified crops,” he said.

World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, announced the 2016 winners. The four recipients will split a $250,000 prize.