Dr (Mrs) Olapeju Phorbee is the Country Manager of the International Potato Centre and Senior Country Coordinator of Building Nutritious Food Basket in Nigeria. She explains to Head, Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA that crops-based approach to tackling malnutrition has been complementing other approaches. She clarifies that bio-fortified foods being promoted in Nigeria and other countries are not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Sweet potatoes, she claims, can be processed into gari.
You coordinate the Building Nutritious Food Basket (BNFB) in Nigeria project. What is this about?
The Building Nutritious Food Basket in Nigeria project has to do with scaling up bio-fortification and bio-fortified crops, which are vitamin-A bio-fortified cassava, maize and sweet potato. We are trying to scale up the production, processing/utilisation and consumption of these crops in Nigeria. How are we going to do these? We are doing that through seed system development, capacity development and policy engagements, getting the government to buy in and support these nutritious crops. We want the farmers and other stakeholders to adopt them. And we want processors to use them and consumers to embrace them.
People mix up bio-fortified crops with the genetically modified ones. How do you educate the public?
We have been educating and will continue to educate them. The truth is that all these bio-fortified crops that we promote in Nigeria are not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). The GMO materials do not pass through the Nigeria’s Agricultural National Release Committee. All our bio-fortified crops were formally approved by the release committee in this country. We had on-farm trials of the crops prior to release, which the release committee visited and followed due process before approval.
Our bio-fortified crops are made through selective conventional breeding. The principle of GMO is completely different; it is through genetic engineering.
Your centre is mainly on potato. What are the advantages of the potato varieties you are promoting?
Our center promotes all types of potatoes; Irish and sweet potatoes.
In this BNFB project, we are promoting the Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato, popularly called OFSP, which is the vitamin-A bio-fortified variety. We have three varieties at the moment which are rich in vitamin A (mothers’ Delight, King J and the latest released variety called ‘Solo-Gold’.
Promoting vitamin A bio-fortified crops is an approach to address vitamin A deficiency, which is long standing in Nigeria. We call it a complementary approach, as it is complementing other efforts put up by the government to reduce the deficiency of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in Nigeria. Such efforts include supplementation, food fortification and dietary diversification. We are adding food-based approach to it, which is sustainable and it is household empowering. These crops can be planted at the backyard or kitchen gardens.
People can have access to them anytime and two of them (orange maize and orange sweet potato) are early-maturing (3-4 months).
Are farmers and people embracing the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes?
We are getting there. It is improving gradually. We are not there 100 per cent, but adoption is growing day by day. We keep educating people that these are not GMOs. We are telling them about the nutritional and economic value.
You know the regular white-fleshed sweet potato naturally has not only calorie but also rich in some micronutrients, like potassium and magnesium. The orange-fleshed variety uniquely has pro vitamin A in addition to calorie and some micronutrients. Vitamin A is a vitamin of public health importance, especially children who are under the age of five years, as it helps with cognitive development, immunity boost and clarity of vision.
Have you identified the high potato growing zones and have you tried to penetrate them?
The good thing about this sweet potato is that it can grow anywhere in the country and now we have been working, till date, in about 15 states and we have our success stories across the value chains in all the states. Such include Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Rivers and Osun states.
Are these varieties high-yielding, because farmers will consider the yield potential?
With good agronomic practices, they are high-yielding. And that is why we keep training and re-training farmers on good agronomic practices. With healthy planting materials and good agronomic practices, a farmer can get up to 15 metric tonnes per hectare and you can do all-year planting if you have access to water, because within three to four months, they are ready for harvest.
At the post-harvest level, we have been able, with our national partners, come up with nutritious products from OFSP. We have been able to substitute wheat flour for OFSP puree in bread production and pastries, up to 35 per cent. OFSP flour can also be used but for high pro vitamin A retention, we promote use of puree.
We have also been able to come up with orange sweet potato juice. We have been able to enrich our national beverage, kunu, with OFSP as well as other traditional dishes. We have been able to make pastries like chin-chin, puff-puff, cakes, cookies, etc so that women at micro-small-medium-scale levels can engage in them for income generation.
Another good thing about this sweet potato is that it cooks very fast with little energy. Everything in this crop is just good for health and wealth of the people. The leaves are used for vegetable soup and the stems are used as livestock feeds for fish, pigs, rabbits and cattle. In fact, some people call it animal’s delight, as animals love to eat this particular OFSP.
Can it be processed like gari?
Yes. You can use it to make gari. It is the same procedure. You peel, wash, grate and bag for fermentation. The period of fermentation depends on how sour you want it. You can have like Ijebu gari if you prolong the fermentation period. It ferments very fast because of the sugar content. After fermentation, you remove water (press) and then roast at not too high temperature so that you don’t lose all the pro-vitamin A contents.