Cassava farmers count the cost of 'endless' diseases, call for support

When Francois Hitimana invested in cassava farming, he was expecting to harvest enough to hit the bank with a wide grin. Apart from his family having more than enough of the staple food at the end of harvest, he expected to achieve self-reliance.
The roots and shoots of cassava plants are getting affected, leading to drying. (Emmanuel Ntirenganya)
The roots and shoots of cassava plants are getting affected, leading to drying. (Emmanuel Ntirenganya)

When Francois Hitimana invested in cassava farming, he was expecting to harvest enough to hit the bank with a wide grin. Apart from his family having more than enough of the staple food at the end of harvest, he expected to achieve self-reliance. 

However, fate had other ideas for Hitimana and the good dreams he was whistling about in his sleep have turned sour. Today, the farmer is worried he might be downgraded from his current third Ubudehe category to the first – that of the most vulnerable.

The 59-year-old, a father of six from Kinazi Sector, Ruhango District, said in 2012 season A starting from September, he invested Rwf12 million in 17 hectares of cassava plantation.

But the entire plantation was ravaged by cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), locally known as ‘Kabore’, leaving all his investment efforts in ruins.

CSBD, a cassava virus disease, causes root rot rendering cassava inedible. The devastating cassava disease also causes loss of cassava root (tuber) production. The disease is said to be the major cassava threat in East Africa.

About five months ago, Hitimana received cassava cuttings from the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) and Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) as a means to address the issue of Kabore, which had devastated the cassava crop in the Southern Province, mainly Ruhango District, the largest cassava grower in the country.
RAB and MINAGRI believed those varieties were disease-free and resistant.

New variety affected

Farmers said RAB gave the new variety to cassava farmers owning large plots of land so that they would give the cuttings to other farmers once they get multiplied.

But accounts from cassava farmers indicate that the new cassava variety that was procured and imported from Uganda has a different and more dangerous disease than ‘Kabore’.

“We sighed with relief thinking we had got a good variety after the previous varieties were devastated. I had invested Rwf7 million on 9 hectares of land, on which I planted the new cassava variety I got from RAB and MINAGRI,” Hitimana told The New Times.

“But our hope to get cassava produce has been dwindling as the new variety from Uganda is drying in the field. With Kabore, the cassava plantain would be affected and start rotting gradially, but the new variety is wasting away in such a manner that we would not manage to get any harvest.”

All the Rwf19 money, in total, that he invested in cassava growing was a loan from the Rwanda Development Bank (BRD). He is worried he will not be able to service the loan.

“I’m worried that my collateral is going to be auctioned and I will be downgraded into the first Ubudehe category from my current third Ubudehe category and I will be leading an abject life with my family,” Hitimana said.

Eric Habingabire, a cassava farmer from Mbuye Sector, Ruhango District, said the government had given farmers laudable support in getting cassava cuttings after damage caused by Kabore disease in the previ0us season.

“But now we are worried about impending food instability and poverty we are going to experience as the new cassava variety is also affected,” Habingabire said.

He had invested Rwf3.5 million in cassava farming on a 10-hectare piece of land in Mbuye Sector.

The farmers said RAB has instructed them to uproot the affected cassava plantains but they claim if they do so, the land would be bare as all the plantains could be decimated.

“Cassava is the main crop in our area. Although Cyizere variety was affected by the disease, it sprouted well only to fail later, but this new variety is not promising at all,” said Gerald Dusabumuremyi, another farmer from Mbuye Sector.

Farmers said they invested in cassava farming to make use of their land to help improve their welbeing and sustenance as well as contribute to the development of the country through food security.

Some farmers like Aimable Sibomana have opted for other crops like banana because their cassava plantation was affected by Kabore and they don’t have a disease-free and resistant cassava variety to grow.

The situation raises an issue of concern for the food security as cassava, one of the staple food crops, is at stake.

Farmers said RAB told them that where they got the cassava variety in Uganda, there might be some disease affected cuttings.

CBSD disease was first reported in September last year, and, since then, RAB launched a campaign to uproot affected cassava plantains to curtail the spread of the disease.

RAB said it decided to multiply the cuttings in open and large fields owned by cassava multiplier famers to avoid CBSD affected plantains from surrounding fields, contaminating the new cassava cultivar.

The new variety

The new cassava cultivar was given to farmers and planted in February 2015. About seven million cuttings were planted on an estimated 700 hectares countrywide, with Ruhango District having the highest fraction of 343 hectares.

Figures from RAB show that an average Rwandan household eats cassava meals two days per week, and the Southern Province accounts for 42 per cent of the national cassava production.

RAB said within one year, the cultivar would more than treble, hence allowing more farmers access disease free cassava cuttings to grow.

However, Dr Telesphore Ndabamenye, deputy director-general in-charge of infrastructure and mechanisation and acting deputy director of agriculture extension at RAB, said the cassava cuttings from Uganda were safe.

He said RAB has availed specialists to inspect cassava crop growth in farmers’ fields, adding that the specialists have identified fungus in some cassava plantains and they are advising farmers to uproot them as a means to avoid it affecting other plantains.

However, Dr Ndabamenye said there might be incidents where the cultivars might be affected as CBSD virus is spread by a whitefly, adding that there was need for at least 400 metres isolation distance between the mother garden for the disease-free cassava cultivars and the affected cassava plantains so that the disease can be controlled.

The new cassava variety, NASE14 (Namuronge Selection 14), was procured from Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO).

Parfait Gasana, crop production and extension specialist at RAB, said NARO is the only body that has so far managed to produce cassava cultivars that are hundred percent resistant to cassava mosaic virus and to CBSD.

He said they want to carry out sample tests in laboratory for the affected cassava from farmers’ fields to devise best approaches to manage the issue, adding that in Karama and Gashora RAB stations in Bugesera District, those cultivars are so far safe and responding well.

RAB has a 20-hectare experiment garden in the district, according to Ndabamenye.

Ndabamenye said Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is supporting RAB to organise training for all concerned players, including local leaders, agronomists, behaviour change agents mainly at village level so that they have common understanding about teaching people how to manage CBSD.

“We believe if the mobilisation goes well, in the next year, there will be appropriate cassava cuttings to grow. But there is a need that any person having affected cassava trees should uproot them,” he said.

Ndabamenye said a research to produce cassava cultivars that are disease free and resistant to CBSD by RAB are in advanced stages.

Meanwhile, farmers have asked authorities to help them insure their crops against disasters so that the unpredictable diseases do not leave them in total ruin whenever they strike.