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Kenyan farmers find sweet spot with nutritious, drought-hardy crop

In a modern factory in central Kenya, the only one of its kind in Meru County, dozens of products are being made. These include bread, cakes, doughnuts and crisps, and they all share the same main ingredient: sweet potato.

Owned and run by Meru Friends Sacco, a savings and credit cooperative, the facility in Maua town was established two years ago as a way to help people access nutritional food in a region where crops are routinely destroyed by drought.

The cooperative’s members of more than 1,000 farmers were motivated by a U.N. report warning climate change and poverty were major threats to health in the lower parts of Meru, explained Patrick Mbaabu, the factory’s general manager.

They wanted to find a crop that would boost climate resilience in the area while also addressing the issue of malnutrition, he added. After first considering bananas and Irish potatoes, the farmers settled on sweet potatoes because they are known for being rich in Vitamin A and essential minerals, Mbaabu said.

In addition, the hot, dry weather that makes it hard to grow thirsty crops in Meru is ideal for the sweet potato plant, said Julius Inyingi, chairman of Meru Friends Sacco.

Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority and the European Union helped pay for the factory, which cost 40 million Kenyan shillings ($398,000), and also provide training for the farmers on how to run it and grow the potatoes.

As the farmers in Meru Friends Sacco urge their neighbors to grow more sweet potato, they highlight the fact that the under-rated plant is easy to cultivate - even in poor soil - and versatile, which adds value to the crop, Mbaabu explained.

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