Africa earns the reputation of producing more cassava than any other crop. FAO figures, in 2011, revealed that the continent produced 140 million metric tonnes, compared to 65 million tonnes of maize. Easy to grow in poor soils, with few inputs, it has long been an important and cheap source of food. According to Dr. Kenton Dashiell, deputy director general for partnerships and capacity development at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, “cassava provides a source of livelihood to about 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Although cassava yields in Asia and some parts of Africa have reportedly risen up to between 15 and 20 metric tons per hectare in recent times, compared to the current world average yield of just 12.8 tonnes, some farms now record in excess of 20 kg per ha following research and development interventions. Scientists are optimistic that yields could rise to as high as 50 to 60 tonnes per hectare. There is great potential for further production increases under optimal conditions, yielding even 80 tonnes per hectare.
These clearly mask the locational variations as yields have reportedly risen as high as 7 MT/ha for rice (or 14 MT/ha in double cropping, particularly in Nigeria since 2014), 5 MT/ha for wheat, 3 to 5 MT/ha for millet or about 3 MT/ha for sorghum.
Each of these falls far short of even the dry matter content of cassava ex-factory. But all these are stand in stark contrast when compared with cassava dry matter content, of which a large proportion is starch, a primary factor that defines adoption of new cassava. Okechukwu and Dixon of IITA, in their 2008 work, pointed out that breeding of improved varieties with high dry matter content is one of the primary objectives of cassava genetic improvement programmes.
Productivity gains have been rising rapidly as more improved varieties are coming on the stable.
Both the supply side (crop yield, post-harvest handling, price questions, and trade) and the demand side (varieties of products and derivatives) are creating excitement among stakeholders. While, according to the FAO, 10 percent of cereal harvested is wasted yearly during its journey from farm to consumer, the AGRA-enabled on-farm primary processor is becoming a popular tool for reducing post-harvest wastage in cassava to a manageable minimum. Booming demand offers millions of cassava growers in tropical countries the opportunity to intensify production, earn higher incomes and boost the food supply where it is most needed.
Although Africa is reputed to be the source of the highest output of cassava, Nigeria and Tanzania have continued to report yields of less than eight tonnes per hectare against Asian countries such as Thailand, where yields of more than 22 tonnes per hectare have been reported. The disparities in yield and post-harvest processing have put African cassava farmers at a disadvantage as they cannot compete in global market, especially in terms of exports.
If properly harnessed, however, cassava production could become an avenue for financially empowering Africa’s poor farmers. The Guardian newspaper of the UK was confident that “cassava can become Africa’s new cash crop.” And, truly, cassava is abundant in Sub-Saharan Africa, and could be an ideal crop to improve food security for millions of people. The Guardian noted, however, that “historically, it hasn’t had quite the same level of attention or research that maize, rice, and wheat have.” It nonetheless added that “that is now starting to change, with new varieties of the plant addressing some of its nutritional and physiological shortcomings and helping to transform cassava into an African cash crop with a more versatile role to play in development.”
To supplement the relatively low nutritional value in the carbohydrate, the root of the cassava plant is now being improved with the biofortification, leading to increasing supply of cassava output with pro-vitamin A. No fewer than three new vitamin A-enriched cassava varieties have been presented by IITA as developed in partnership with the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute and disseminated by HarvestPlus and other development partners. The new varieties –
known as UMUCASS 36, 37, and 38 – are expected to have a significant impact in solution to the widespread problem of vitamin A deficiency in large populations who rely on cassava in their daily diet.
According to Hernan Ceballos, a cassava breeder at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), “we hope to achieve the same with this asparagus cassava. Today we plant 10,000 plants per hectare and each plant produces 1.5 to 3 kg of root, or 15 to 30 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) of fresh root.” In addition to the growing efforts to develop cassava as a cash crop in sub-Saharan Africa, this value chain is already well established in south-east Asia, for example, where cassava is produced on a large scale for use in industrial starch, ethanol and root chips for animal feed. Lately, the High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) gained popularity in Nigeria as a component of bread and other products of confectioneries.
With more market-driven interventions coming, cassava production is now going beyond dependence on development assistance to economic and industrial commodity. Replacement of wheat (either partly or wholly) with cassava reduces gluten intake (and associated allergy) in bread or any other related product. Cassava leaves are proven feedstock for feeding livestock.
The Sub-Saharan Africa region accounts for more than 950 million people, approximately 13 per cent of the global population. By 2050, this share is projected to increase to almost 22 per cent or 2.1 billion. Undernourishment has been a long-standing challenge, with uneven progress across the region. The underlying supply challenges remain demanding, particularly as climate changes. It has been projected that vast areas of Sub-Saharan Africa will experience a loss in suitability for bean production, and, by 2050, a significant proportion of Africa’s land will be unsuitable for cultivating maize while the suitability for cassava production will increase, especially in Eastern Africa. IMF has projected that 40 per cent of land currently cultivated in Africa will no longer be suitable for maize cultivation in another 30 years because of climate change.
Innovation is clearly needed in Africa’s agricultural value chains. The Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA) project, during its active life cycle, was involved in developing value chains for HQCF in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi. This was aimed at improving the livelihoods and incomes of at least 90,000 smallholder households as direct beneficiaries, including women and disadvantaged groups. The CAVA project supported value addition and commercialisation of cassava in Africa. Beyond CAVA, Africa’s estimated 50 million tonnes of cassava peel waste per year could generate at least 15 million tonnes of high quality products,
substantially addressing shortfalls in the supply of animal feed and eventually creating a $ 2 billion a year industry.
The broad agro-ecological adaptability of cassava, and its ability to produce reasonable yields where most crops cannot, makes it a candidate for food security at the household level and an important source of dietary energy. On the global front, the bulk of world trade in cassava (70 per cent) is in the form of pellets and chips for feed and the balance mostly in starch and flour for food processing and industrial use. Thailand, a dominant supplier to world markets, accounts for some 80 per cent of global trade.
A June 2015 publication on “Market Opportunities for Commercial Cassava in Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria” emphasised that African countries account for the majority of global production, at approximately 158 million MT (57 per cent) in 2013. “Despite widespread subsistence cultivation of cassava, especially in Africa,” it stated further, “the crop’s derivatives have enormous potential for use in industrial processing. Despite accounting for the majority of cassava produced globally, African countries play virtually no role in the global trade of cassava products.” Yet, Thailand’s earnings from the export of cassava products reached nearly $2.8 billion in 2014, having grown at about 15 per cent annually since 2010.
Africa must find its niche in cassava global value chain. Now, countries in the Far East are the major destination of international trade flows in cassava. Over the past few years, China has emerged as the leading cassava importer, procuring mostly feed ingredients.
Presently, the country accounts for around 60 per cent of the global market. China has supplanted the EU as the single most important destination for international cassava shipments. Imports by the EU have endured long-term decline. In spite of a low tariff rate preferential quota for cassava-based feedstuffs, falling grain prices in the EU coupled with environmental concerns and animal disease outbreaks have depressed demand in member states.
Now is the time to look inwards and make value-added cassava products a part of the food security strategic mix for Africa. Cassava attributes and its potential have generally not received the deserved attention by governments, but now, it has to. Importation of grain-based food from the global north to the global south takes enormous financial resources away and supports millions of jobs in the north at the expense of the south. Policies that boost cassava substitutes and move farmers from traditional, low-input to more intensive cultivation need to be promoted. But how smallholder cassava growers choose to improve productivity should be of major concern to policymakers.
Cassava value chain development can help to contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 10 and 12. Environmental implications of production, as reported, showed that cassava production has a low carbon footprint. The fears of displacement of the poor consumers of primary products are not good reasons to shy away from turning the commodity into high-end products. Overall, the increasing attention on cassava is an indication that it is an idea whose time has come.