Teach a Woman to Grow Sweet Potatoes, Feed Her Children for a Lifetime

World Food Programme
July 16, 2020
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

In 2017, Dorica Samson’s 2-year-old son Chrispine would feed solely on breast milk, refusing to eat anything else. Eventually, he fell sick.

“While my son, Chrispine, was being treated for malnutrition at the hospital, I received orange-fleshed potato vines which I planted the same year,” says Dorica, from Nambirikira Village in Malawi’s Dedza District. “This potato is very rich in vitamin A, and I feed it to my five children and husband to stay healthy.”

woman in malawi displaying sweet potatoes
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

Dorica shows off her homegrown, vitamin-A rich, sweet potatoes.

Chrispine was admitted to Mtendere Community Hospital for supplementary feeding provided by the Government in collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Government of Ireland. The nutritional support he received likely saved his life.

young boy plays with toy in malawi
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

Chrispineis now healthy enough to run and play with other children. His recovery is well underway thanks to nutrition interventions.

Of the 138 million people the U.N. World Food Programme aims to reach in 2020, 22 million are children and nursing mothers in need of lifesaving malnutrition prevention and treatment. Projections from the U.N. World Food Programme suggest COVID-19 could push another 130 million into severe hunger, bringing the total to 265 million.

According to figures from Johns Hopkins University published in The Lancet, 1.2 million children under the age of five could die over the next six months if health care and food markets are disrupted.

William Magombo, a health surveillance assistant at Mtendere Community Hospital, has seen many stories like Dorica’s.

“We have been raising awareness with pregnant and breastfeeding women on nutrition and healthy diets,” says William. “However, to sustain them on the path to recovery, we train them to grow and prepare locally available foods, such as the yellow-flesh sweet potato, beans, groundnuts and others.”

woman washes hands while talking to masked man
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

Health monitor William keeps tabs on women’s well-being, from washing hands to nutrition.

Malawians face high levels of stunting which results from poor childhood diets and infections — an estimated 56,000 children under the age of five suffer from severe malnutrition. While down almost 10 percent since 2010, stunting remains very high at 37.1 percent. And only 8 percent of children under the age of two consume the minimum acceptable diet.

Childhood malnutrition in Malawi is perpetuated through the impacts of recurrent climate shocks. Without access to adequate food and nutrition, children under five are at high risk of acute malnutrition, which can result in irreversible setbacks to their development for the rest of their lives.

infant gets arm measured to test for malnourishment
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

William prepares to check the nutrition status of an infant using the mid-upper arm circumference testing.

Usually, when children fall sick with malnutrition in Malawi, they are taken to a health center to receive Super Cereal Plus, a nutrient-rich, high-energy, dense porridge flour. But sometimes there are other underlying issues; children can fall sick again after showing signs of recovery.

While her son was being treated, Dorica started participating in a program to learn how to grow and cook nutritious food for her family — hence the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes she planted.

Potatoes are a great complement to other regional foods such as corn, soy beans and groundnuts, all of which Dorica grows on her farm. From these, with the training she got at the hospital, she and her family of six now have a rich and nutritious diet.

two young brothers eat sweet potatoes while their mom watches over
Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

Chrispine and his brother eat a lunch that’s rich with yellow sweet potatoes.

Dorica now has a six-month-old baby, but this time she doesn’t need to go to the hospital for nutrition support. In spite of the restrictions on her movement and gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dorica has all the nutritional solutions she needs for her family right at her doorstep.

“I make porridge and fritters from the potato, and Chrispine likes it so much — it is delicious and full of nutrients,” she says. “I feed the entire family and they love it,” she says. “With this potato and the other crops I grow, I have enough food. Even with the little baby, I do not go to the hospital for nutrition support.”


This story was written by Francis Thawani and originally appeared on WFP’s Insight.