For several years, many African farmers ignored cassava in favor of cash crops like maize and beans. But in the face of chronic worldwide food shortages, many governments and farmers are turning to cassava. Experts say it can deliver an abundant yield, and is easy to grow – even in areas with poor soils and low rainfall.
Cassava produces a bulky root with a heavy concentration of carbohydrates, and its edible leaves are rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals. Scientists say the proteins in cassava leaves are similar to those in eggs. They say if properly processed, cassava will provide a balanced diet that can protect millions of Africans against malnutrition. Another advantage is that it is harvested in the early rainy season, when hunger is most acute. Maize stocks usually run low before the new harvest.
Patrice Annequin is an expert with the US-based International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural in Lome, Togo. “It looks like there’s a big potential for cassava and derivative products to improve the livelihood of the farmers and also all the stakeholders of that chain; the traders, transporters, processors for local markets, but also for regional markets and the international market, especially the EU,” he says.
“Almost every farmer knows how to grow cassava. You find cassava from Senegal to Angola, and it is millions of tons that you can process for the local market or for export,” he adds. Researchers say the plant can be transformed into high-quality flour, animal feed, paper and adhesives. It’s used as livestock feed and to make Chinese textiles, plywood, soft drinks and confections.
In countries like Ghana and Nigeria, production has soared over the past few years. In fact in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Nigeria the world’s leading cassava producer, ahead of Brazil, Thailand and the DRC. The improved production is due in part to new varieties developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria.
Evelyn Ikhane works at Vesa Farms Ltd. in Edo State, Nigeria. The company produces, processes and markets cassava. Ikhane says the company has benefited from increased production. It has been able to experiment with potentially new products, like improved fufu, made from the tuber. She says business is good and she would gladly share her experience with farmers in Cameroon and across the continent.
“For now, I think Cameroon is not doing badly. But I feel they’re still far behind because most of the equipment they use here [is] locally made, while in Nigeria, [though] we have machines of high standards from places like India. There are things that we have achieved in Nigeria that a place like Cameroon is yet to achieve and instead of looking to the external world like America, they could come to us because we’re nearby and we could work together. Cameroon can learn from us. We need to create an avenue whereby we can do inter-nation trade” she argues.
The Cameroon government has launched an emergency program to increase food production. It is planning to modernize existing agricultural production units, create new ones and also create large-scale agro-enterprises. The plan includes the production of 1.3 million tons of cassava by 2010, up from 1 million tons in 2009. Some 2.2 million improved cassava stems are being distributed to farmers nationwide. There are similar objectives for maize, palm oil, banana, rice, potatoes and plantain. Officials say an over-concentration on cassava could lead to the neglect of other crops and could cause shortages.
Thomas Ngue Bissa is coordinator of the National Program for Roots and Tubers, a government structure that works with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD. He says he is working with authorities in Central Africa to promote cassava production and replicate the example of Ghana and Nigeria.
“Cassava can help to fight poverty and cassava is the first product in our country. We want to stimulate preferably young people and women; to tell them that they can go in the production of cassava, processing and marketing and they can gain some money. You know we don’t have an institution that can help people in the rural area to get the means to do production and processing,” he says.
“We have to be helped by government or donors to help people to get financing to let them acquire equipment and input. We want to create a sub-regional institution for the promotion of cassava. Now, we are just sponsored by IFAD and we think that the means IFAD is putting is good but not enough to let us promote the sector,” he adds
The program is working with farmers’ groups in rural areas. It is setting up new links with processing structures and has started exporting to Europe and America. They are calling on the government to build processing plants close to their farms, attract investors, improve transportation in remote farming areas, reduce duties on imported input and provide education on new farming techniques.