Can cassava become Africa’s next cash crop?

Thursday, 18 Feb 2010

For ages, thousands of farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa have eked out a living tending cassava farms, but with nothing much to show for it.

They have had to grapple with losses occasioned by regular outbreaks of brown streak disease and cassava mosaic that are spread by white flies, worsening acute food shortages in the region’s most severely affected zones.

And all this time, governments and agriculturalists have been touting cassava, as well as a host of other traditional crops such as pigeon peas and yams as the possible answers to recurrent famines in the region.

But perhaps farmers’ loud cries could come to an end thanks to an ambitious multi million shilling project.

The four-year cassava value-adding initiative -- funded by the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) and implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) -- which hopes to raise the profile of the tuber crop from being a "poor man’s crop" to a profitable and sustainable source of income for resource-poor farmers in the region.

The Sh350 million ($4.5 million) project will promote the production, use, and marketing of High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) from fresh cassava roots.

The project, which was officially launched in Lusaka, Zambia on February 2, covers Zambia, Madagascar, and Tanzania.

It will be supervised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The project will work with 9,000 small-scale farmers and processors in the three countries to produce and sell HQCF said Dr Abass Adebayo, IITA cassava value chain specialist and the project’s regional coordinator during its launch.

It will introduce two-step processing of the crop.

At the village-level, small-scale processors will purchase fresh cassava roots from farmers and extract water to form semi-dry grits.

These will then be sold to town-level processors for drying and milling into HQCF for end users.

Cassava is a bulky crop that rots very fast.

The semi-dry grits reduce the weight by half, making transportation to town-level processors easier and providing a longer shelf life.

The project intends to set up one cassava supply chain in each country.
Each will be made up of 3,000 farmers, at least four village-level processors of semi-dry grits and one final stage processor of HQCF.

"However, as we clearly demonstrate the profitability of cassava processing, we hope that the rural and urban entrepreneurs will establish many more supply chains," he said.

He said the 3,000 farmers, organized in groups, will be expected to supply 3,000 tonnes of fresh cassava per year.

"We are working with an average farm size of one hectare per farmer and expect each farmer to sell one tonne for immediate cash and keep the rest for home consumption ... The average yield is 10 tonnes per hectare," he said.

He added that the current cassava yield levels in the three countries were way below Africa’s and the world’s average potential.

The project intended to double the yields by training farmers on good agricultural practices and introducing high yielding varieties.

Agriculturalists said despite the millions of shillings that have been pumped in increasing productivity of traditional foods like cassava locally, the region is still wallowing in food insecurity as millions starve.

To illustrate the potential for HQCF, Dr Abass said Tanzania imported 813,513 tonnes of wheat in 2007 values at $233,496,000.

"If the technology to produce HQCF was available then and it substituted only 10 per cent of the wheat exports, $23 million would have been saved in foreign exchange," he said.

"This would have been redistributed to the smallholder farmers, processors and other players in the supply chain. And, it would have made a significant contributing to poverty reduction in the rural areas, the main aim of MKUKUTA."

Estimates show the total market for starch-based products in Kenya is estimated to be over 12,000 metric tonnes per annum with cassava starch touted to be potential to substitute maize starch in the paperboard industry.

Dr Watson Mwale, the Director of Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), speaking at the launch said the four-year project was a build up of a successfully concluded Phase I which, demonstrated that of all the products derived from HQCF held great potential to generate income and create wealth.

Nicolaus Cromme, the CFC project manager, said that the project intends to attract the private sector to take over the commercial production of HQCF and make it competitive, sustainable, and beneficial to resource-poor farmers.

Companies that had tested the HQCF were keen to use it as it reduced their costs without compromising the quality of their products.

Ralaivoa Solange, an R&D manager with Biscuiterie JB, a biscuit-making factory in Madagascar, who was also at the forum said the company had previously used blended flour containing 25-30 per cent cassava flour to make biscuits and wafers.

"They were well accepted by the consumers and the company was saving money," she said. "However, we stopped after a year as the supply was not regular and the quality was not consistent. The cassava flour was supplied by small scale processors and farmers using sun-drying method."

Fight poverty

Dr Abass said sun-drying technology leads to irregular supply of HQCF to end users.

"Processors are practically unable to produce and supply HQCF during rainy seasons yet the end user industries need the HQCF every day of the year. Therefore we will introduce mechanical drying technologies at the town-level processing stage," he said.

The project team hopes to attract the private sector in the three participating countries to drive the process and fully exploit the potential of this crop to improve the income and food security of resource-poor small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs to fight poverty and foster rural development.

The national partners working with IITA include Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) in Zambia, the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre (TFNC) in Tanzania, and the National Center for Applied Research on Rural Development (FOFIFA) in Madagascar.

Credits: Business Daily/Catherine Njuguna