Researchers add beans, potatoes to pancakes to boost child nutrition

Ripe bananas are mashed as usual but the powder added to this nutritious pancake is a mixture of cassava, potato and beans, as opposed to adding only cassava flour.  PHOTO / COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The researchers at Gulu have used iron-rich beans and the Vitamin A rich Orange Sweet Potato (OSP) to enrich the conventional pancake with those required micronutrients to improve the nutrition of children below five years. 

Ever thought of a kabalagala (pancake) made with beans and potatoes? Yes, ripe bananas, cassava, potato and bean flour all put together. It could actually be what your child needs to escape poor growth, blindness, or death as a result of key nutritional deficiencies. 

Kabalagala, a round, flat and brown sweet snack traditionally made with cassava flour and ripe bananas is very popular in Uganda especially among children. 

It is usually sold at many groceries stores, markets and road side stalls across the country. Owing to its popularity, researchers at Gulu University have added Vitamin A and Iron to the snack to improve the nutrition of children below five years. 

Lack of Vitamin A causes child blindness and also weakens the body system to make it susceptible to common killer illnesses such as diarrhoea. 

In Uganda Vitamin A deficiency affects 32 per cent of children below five. Research published in May 2020 indicates that children who lack Vitamin A have 43 per cent higher chances of stunted growth than those who consume it in sufficient qualities. 

Lack of iron on the other hand causes anaemia (a condition in which one’s blood lacks enough health red blood cells to distribute oxygen to body parts) and retards child growth. Iron deficiency affects more than 50 percent of Uganda’s children below five.

The condition where intake of minerals and vitamins is too low to support proper growth and good health is known as hidden hunger. In other words, one can have enough food to fill the tummy when it lacks those essential micronutrients for proper growth – it is hunger that is hidden.

It is estimated that 13 million Ugandans are affected by hidden hunger. The estimate for the globe by the UN is two billion people. 

The researchers at Gulu have used iron-rich beans and the Vitamin A rich Orange Sweet Potato (OSP) to enrich the conventional pancake with those required micronutrients. 

Growing of those biofortified crops has been promoted in Uganda for more than 15 years mainly by HarvestPlus, a global nutrition alliance, and the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO). By 2020, according to HarvestPlus, more than 1.1m Ugandan families were growing and eating OSP and 810,000 were growing iron rich beans.

Mastering the pancake

Enriching the pancake with Vitamin A and Iron at Gulu University started in 2017 as a masters research project of a student from Benin, Melas Cayrol Adoko. 

Adoko came to Gulu on sponsorship from a project known as Transforming African Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s Growth and Development (TAGDev) implemented at Gulu University in Uganda and Egerton University in Kenya. 

This project, managed by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and funded by the Mastercard Foundation, is designed in a way that it directly links student training and research to community needs. In Adoko’s case, it is nutrition.

Adoko, backed by his supervisors Solomon Olum and Duncan Ongeng, visited different communities in Gulu and Omoro districts and studied the different types of pancake that they were making.

“When people are making that kabalaga it is just starch with the banana,” he said. “We just did like what they do in the community, but added these nutrient-rich ingredients.”

Ripe bananas are mashed as usual but the powder added this time is a mixture of cassava, potato and beans, as opposed to adding only cassava flour. 

The potatoes are peeled, sliced and dried under minimum exposure to sunshine to prevent Vitamin A loss. 

“At the beginning we tried to develop at least three products. We subjected them to evaluation. We wanted them [communities] to compare our products with the traditional ones. They generally preferred one out of the three which were given to them. When they compared it with the traditional one they preferred the one which is improved. The taste, the colour, the aroma, the improved one got a high score compared to the traditional one. When you look at it you just feel like going for it,” he said.

Nutritional requirements 

Most importantly, the pancake is designed to meet the minimum nutritional requirement, which is 50 per cent of vitamin A and Iron in children aged between two and five years. One pancake weighs about 25gramms. A child needs four of these pancakes a day to get enough Vitamin A and Iron for proper growth.

After his research, which earned him an MA in 2019, Adoko returned to the communities where he had done the research to train them on how to make the pancake. He then embarked on making a business out of his discovery, but that is when the lockdown in March 2020 disrupted his work.

His plan is to start making the pancake for the market near Gulu University – ideally that is Gulu City. He will then expand to reach other markets.

“It is going to be a business. We are going to supply to different supermarkets and shops in town. We are going to use a wholesale approach. We may start small but we believe we are going to grow very quickly,” he told me. 

He added: “If it was not for Covid-19 I would have started already. But these days it is quite tricky. You may end up losing your money”

Their product is without any sugar added or preservatives and has a shelf life of two days. 

“We want to keep it as natural as possible. What we should be doing is to respect all the hygiene practices. We have assessed everything about it and we are sure it can last two days,” he says.

Adoko and his colleagues continue to explore what else they could do to make the pancake more valuable.

“The research was done in the community but now we are thinking of doing it in a processing plant condition, the ideal conditions of processing for market,” he said. 

Adoku’s research project was among those presented recently during a webinar series on TAGDEV supported research projects hosted by Gulu University’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

The projects focused on promoting sustainable community nutrition, improving productivity for smallholder farmers and promoting entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector. 

TAGDEV, whose implementation started in 2016, targets by 2022 to have fully supported least 220 masters and undergraduate degrees and facilitated several action research projects across the African continent.

What is vitamin A and what does it do?

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in many foods. Vitamin A is important for normal vision, the immune system, and reproduction. Vitamin A also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly.

There are two different types of vitamin A. The first type, preformed vitamin A, is found in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. The second type, provitamin A, is found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products. The most common type of provitamin A in foods and dietary supplements is beta-carotene.

How much vitamin A do I need?

The amount of vitamin A you need depends on your age and sex. Average daily recommended amounts are listed below in micrograms (mcg) of retinol activity equivalents (RAE).

Iron on the other hand is a mineral, and it is found in every cell in the body. It’s an important part of red blood cells, which hold and carry oxygen to all of the cells. Our cells use oxygen to make energy from the food we eat. Iron also is needed to keep the immune system healthy and help brain cells work normally.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Severe iron deficiency can lead to one type of anemia. 

Without adequate iron, red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen to other cells in the body. Cells that do not get oxygen cannot function properly.

Signs of an iron deficiency include:

Feeling tired


Muscle weakness

Difficulty concentrating

William Odinga Balikuddembe is the President & CEO Uganda Science Journalists Association.