Tired but determined, Martha Adhiambo saunters into Othoro public hospital in Homa Bay County, a day after she had attended her ante-natal clinic.
Ordinarily, Martha would have returned to the hospital after at least a week, but this trip was important.
The previous day, she had forgotten to collect her orange fleshed sweet potato vines, which the hospital offers expectant mothers for free.
The vines of the Kabode and VitaA varieties are given to expectant women to encourage them to plant and eat sweet potatoes, which are a cheap source of Vitamin A for their babies.
“I will plant the vines today so that they will be ready by the time I am weaning my baby,” Martha says as she carries her bunch of vines.
Each expectant mother is given about 100 cuttings of Kabode and VitA vines each. If they were on sale each would cost Sh1.
Not far away, Sophie Moraa, a breast-feeding mother, weeds her second generation of the crop having first harvested in June.
“They are the best thing to have happened to me when I was pregnant,” says Moraa of the crop which is the top producer of tubers in the country.
Besides pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, the hospital also gives the vines to families with children under five years at a 50 per cent discount from the International Potato Centre and Path, a health organisation, alongside ministries of Health and Agriculture.
The potatoes boost Vitamin A intake and offer agribusiness opportunities.
Vitamin A is vital in the body helps to improve vision, boosts the immune system, and reproduction. The mineral helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs to work efficiently.
The two varieties, Kabode and VitA, which were bred in Kakamega and released in 2013 by the Ministry of Agriculture, are now a green gold in Homa Bay.
To plant the two varieties, the 30cm vines are planted on raised beds in a spacing of about 0.3 metres from one plant to another in rows of about a metre apart.
The vines should be in deep soil to give the tubers room to develop to avoid producing small, bent and forked sweet potatoes.
While the traditional white, yellow and cream sweet potatoes take six months to mature, the orange fleshed variety takes a maximum of four months, meaning farmers can have three planting seasons in a year.
It also yields 18 to 25 tonnes per acre hence enhances the availability of food. The traditional variety yields half the tonnage.
Being nutritive, according to research, it is recommended for people with HIV as it boosts their immunity. The leaves of the plant can be eaten as a vegetable.
Moraa sells surplus tubers to Organi Limited factory, which is situated in Homa Bay, at Sh14 per kilo. The same quantity would fetch Sh5 if she was selling to middlemen.
From her first 200 vines, Moraa harvested 280kg of the tubers, selling at Sh14 a kilo to the factory. She made Sh2,800, leaving the rest for family consumption.
She has expanded her crop to quarter an acre. The 200 vines fit on 140 metre squared space (0.035 acres) and produces up to 300kg of tubers.
Sara Quinn of the potatoes centre says they have coupons issued to mothers after training mothers with which they use to pick up vines from suppliers near the centre.
Th vines are free for pregnant women while lactating mothers and those with children under five pay Sh100 for 200 vines.
Lilian Mabande, a nurse at Othoro hospital, says the vines have become an incentive for women to religiously attend their antenatal clinics and eventually give birth in hospitals as opposed to traditional birth attendants.
“We started with at most 39 women at antenatal visits, but the number has increased to 56 due to the vines. Deliveries used to be an average of six a day, now they have gone to 31,” she explains.
The sweet potato is grated and enriched with avocado fruit or vegetable soup and then fed to a baby.
Agronomist Sammy Agila says 28 health facilities in Nyanza are linked to 66 quality vine multipliers.
The Ministry of Agriculture monitors the quality of the vines and reports on how it’s doing.
“So far, close to 10,000 households with either pregnant women or children below five years have received vines and nutrition education,” says Hellen Gamba, a Path official.
She adds that they have trained 126 health workers to deliver agriculture-nutrition messages and set up 75 mothers’ clubs that train them every month since last year.
At the processing factory, the sweet potatoes are mashed into puree, which is sold to the bakery division of Tuskys supermarket that uses it as a main ingredient in bread, cakes and snacks.
Organi Limited opened the factory in June and buys from farmers and supplying 200-250kg puree to the supermarket.
“To make puree, the potatoe is cleaned, cooked and mashed to form thick soup. It is then packaged and cooled for eight hours and taken to Nairobi,” Gabriel Oduor, Organi factory manager says.
The factory collects one tonne of tubers daily from farmers across Homa Bay, Siaya, Bungoma, Kakamega and Busia.
From a tonne, they get about 600kg of puree, which they sell at Sh60 per kilo.
The potatoe is resistant to many diseases but can be attacked by sweet potato virus disease, which causes stunting of the crop and reduces yield to over 50 per cent.
The disease is caused by aphids and white flies which transmit virus from affected plants to others.
Kipchirchir Ruto, the agricultural assistant director in Bomet County, says agriculturalists, nutritionists and other health workers should work hand in hand to better the community.