FIGHTING VITAMIN A DEFICIENCY: THE YELLOW ROOT CASSAVA APPROACH
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a major public health problem in Nigeria, those most vulnerable include preschool children and pregnant women. In children, VAD is the leading cause of preventable visual impairment and blindness. In Nigeria, VAD is estimated to affect nearly one-third of children under five years and about 20% of pregnant women.
VAD significantly increases the risk of severe illness and death from common childhood infections, particularly diarrheal diseases and measles. In communities where VAD exists, children are 23% more likely to die and 50% more likely to suffer from severe complications of measles. The available evidence suggests that 20–24% of child mortality from measles, diarrhea, and malaria and 3% of mortality associated with other infectious causes can be attributed to VAD. Improving the Vitamin A status of young children in developing countries can reduce child death rates by 20–50% suggesting that a substantial portion of their mortality is attributable to VAD.
In women, in addition to Ocular Lesions, VAD may be an important factor contributing to maternal mortality, poor pregnancy and lactation outcomes. VAD is also likely to increase vulnerability to other disorders, such as iron-deficiency anemia for both women and children, and also worsens growth deficits in children.
To aid in combating VAD in Nigeria, the Nigerian government has partnered with HarvestPlus by distributing Pro-Vitamin A cassava stems to farmers. Commonly known as Yellow Cassava, the Pro-Vitamin A cassava varieties are products of decades of conventional breeding efforts by researchers at International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) with the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) with funds from HarvestPlus.
In Imo state, Forward Africa is in partnership with HarvestPlus to disseminate viable Yellow Cassava stems to farmers across all the Local Government Areas in the state. An integral part of this project is community outreach programmes where Forward Africa’s project officers interact with community heads, women and youth leaders. Partnership with the aforementioned is key to ensure that the community not only accepts the stems but the message of combating VAD is assimilated. Stem cutting, bagging, transportation and dissemination are the processes that the stems go through before they get to the communities.
The community outreach programs include teachings on best practices as it concerns cultivation of Yellow Cassava stems, processing the Yellow Cassava roots into different products like garri, fufu and tapioca, marketing and sales of the cassava stems and roots.
Data collection and monitoring are essential aspects of the project. This ensures that the recipients are contacted at intervals to ascertain the impact which consuming the end products has made in their lives. Monitoring also ensures that farmers who received stems also share stems they cut from their farms to other farmers near them. This farmer-to-farmer dissemination ensures that the stems are spread even further and the farmers become agents of dispersing the message of VAD and using Yellow cassava to combat it.
So far, Forward Africa has shared the stems to over 17,000 households spread amongst the 27 Local Government Areas in Imo state. The stems have been directly cultivated in over 50 hectares of land. Also, the cultivation of the stems in schools is currently going on. This will make children who are largely the target audience to consume more of the products.
Feedback from various farmers and households attest to the improvement in the health of those that have eaten the Yellow Cassava products. This has strengthened Forward Africa’s resolve to continue the fight against VAD using Yellow Root, Vitamin A Cassava.