Brian Hilton in Burundi. Photo by World vision.
Not everything in development is a quick win. Often it is a slow struggle to change the hearts and minds of those in power. Such is the case with orange sweet potato in Burundi. World Vision has a great program with high iron beans released by the government in Burundi. These beans are 70% higher in iron than the normal beans.
In 2013 I met with the Director General of Agriculture in Burundi to praise the country’s bean breeding program. Then I moved on to sweet potato. I told the director that the last sweet potato variety released in Burundi was in 1988, that sweet potato is an important staple in Burundi and the new orange varieties rich in Vitamin A could resolve many of the nutritional issues in his countries. I said that Burundi is ranked the number 2 country in Africa in terms of impact of the orange sweet potato. And finally, I said Burundi needed to appoint a young sweet potato breeder. Such is the careful language used to criticise a program in a country with a dictatorship – not open to much criticism. I pushed the director as hard as I dared not wanting to make an enemy. I left that meeting not knowing if I had destroyed our relationship and offended the director or caused the director to consider the difference orange sweet potato could make to his country in terms of vitamin A nutrition.
To my delight in 2015, two young part-time Burundian sweet potato breeders were appointed by the Director General of Agriculture. And thus, began the happy two-year process of testing orange sweet potato varieties imported from neighbouring countries. These varieties are near to being ready for official release and the government has given World Vision permission to do farmer trials in what is like a “soft” release. This is wonderful news and will result in reduced vitamin A deficiency in the population of Burundi. Especially since many countries like Burundi still have childhood blindness resulting from severe vitamin A deficiency.
One of the first farmers who will receive this orange sweet potato is Mariette Ntirampeba who is a leader, farmer and local volunteer in the Muyinga Province. Mariette leads a women’s group as a community volunteer. Considering that the literacy rate and business acumen on Burundian women is very low, having a person like Mariette who knows business and cares about impoverished women within her community is a huge help for our programs.
In the picture above Mariette is feeding a milk cow which the women’s group has purchased jointly. Milk cows are helping this group to make money and feed their children milk at the same time. It might be the only animal source of protein that these kids get. When Mariette gets the first orange sweet potato she will multiply it with her group. World Vision will also help them to sell some of the sweet potatoes to help improve the group’s economic situation in addition to providing better nutrition for their children.