Farmer Sophia Hagan harvests, roasts and packages her own cassava for the market © IFAD/N K Acquah
Millions of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans – often smallholders – rely on cassava for subsistence, especially during the lean season, and as a source of income. The roots and leaves are generally prepared and consumed in simple ways, but there is a growing trend towards processing cassava roots into flour, semolina (atieke), pasta or chips. Livestock feed is another use.
Long considered a poor man’s crop, cassava has more recently begun to attract greater international attention. In 2000, FAO launched the Global Cassava Development Strategy and subsequently created the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century in 2003 with the twofold aim of unlocking cassava’s potential for fighting diseases while improving crop yields and nutritional quality. But it was not until grain prices soared in 2007-2008 that the resurgence of interest in cassava was followed up by tangible commitments. Funds were then made available to the research community, which is essential in order to find effective ways to boost the very low crop yields hampering farmers in ACP countries. Many initiatives are now underway to develop new, high yielding, disease-resistant varieties with improved protein and beta-carotene content.
An agribusiness craze
The high market potential of cassava has also attracted private sector interest. In Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, Nestlé is now using cassava starch rather than imported maize starch in its manufactured culinary broths. This multinational company is supporting producers, providing them with improved cassava varieties and buying their crops.
Brewers are also focusing on brewing cheaper beers using locally grown crops as a substitute for imported barley, an initiative that often benefits from government support through tax benefits. In Mozambique, for instance, the Cervajas brewery is working with 10,000 contract farmers to produce its cassava-based (60%) Impala brand beer. Meanwhile, Nigeria is investing heavily in the cassava starch and flour industry.
More effective use of cassava helps cut grain imports, but is also important for reducing rural poverty. Farmers’ incomes have been rising as a result of the dissemination of improved varieties to smallholders, the development of simple, tailored processing technologies and promotion of their products. The Cassava: Adding Value for Africa initiative is in turn developing value chains for manufacturing high grade cassava flour in several African countries to benefit smallholders, while also focusing on drying technologies, among others. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute has introduced production and marketing techniques to foster the development of cassava cropping and processing in several Caribbean countries. Policies are also playing a role, as seen in Trinidad and Tobago, where cassava-based muffins have been introduced in school meals through the School Nutrition Programme.
A promising but threatened future
However, whilst the future looks bright for cassava, it could still be undermined by the spread of disease. Cassava brown streak virus disease – dubbed the ‘silent killer’ – has become widespread in Africa over the last decade. It is capable of destroying entire crops but farmers may only detect its presence when they harvest the damaged roots. Cassava mosaic virus may also hamper root growth and thus diminish crop yields by as much as 25%. Meanwhile, rising temperatures favour the development of whiteflies, vectors of this cassava disease. Scientists sounded the alarm in April 2013, which led to the launching of the Pan-African Cassava Surveillance Network. The stakes are high because cassava crops are very resistant to drought and therefore especially adapted to climate change.