A new era of cassava production in Africa has arrived. Governments finally start to realize the huge potential of the plant as a driver of rural development.
Global cassava production has increased with 60 per cent since 2000, most markedly in sub-Saharan Africa where the growth rate has been equal to that of maize.
However, while West Africa is taking the lead, East Africa has yet to fully recognize the plant’s nutritional, ecological and industrial potential.
Although African consumption of cassava is higher than that of any other staple crop, the plant, labelled as a poor man’s crop, has been neglected in the past. Negative perception has been changing since the global food price crisis in 2008.
Governments started to recognize cassava’s high nutritious value – it is the second most important source of carbohydrate on the continent – and the plant’s resilience to climate change.
Yet the real change is driven by the realization of cassava’s industrial potential. Its root starch can be used in food products, textiles, plywood or paper while the plant is also a feedstock for the production of ethanol bio-fuel.
West Africa has already seized the opportunity. To meet growing global demand, Nigeria has invested immensely in the crop.
The government follows Thailand, where a cassava-driven starch industry generates billions of dollars, diversifying incomes of farmers and generating new jobs.
Demand for ethanol derived from cassava is also growing, especially since China banned the use of cereals for bio-fuel production, although national strategies must guarantee that the industry does not pose a threat to the local cassava food resources.
More importantly, increasing local production and investment in cassava derivatives can reduce food and raw material imports, helping East African governments save in foreign exchange expenditure. In Nigeria cassava has already replaced imported staples.
As cassava is mainly grown by small-scale farmers in areas where soils are poor and unpredictable rainfall, new opportunities in cassava production could lift smallholders from this region, so often affected by chronic food shortages, out of poverty.
Two cassava diseases raging through the Central and East African fields, however, pose a huge threat to the crop’s potential.
Half of all the plants in Africa are infected by one or both of these diseases. To halt the devastating effect of the viruses in the region, the European Union rolled out a programme to support vulnerable communities in their efforts to mitigate, manage and prevent the diseases, and build resilience among farmers.
Seven countries – Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – were involved in the four-year project, coordinated by FAO, which will come to an end in October 2013.
FAO and EU make a call for a new cassava revolution. Governments in East Africa need to identify cassava as a priority crop. National and regional policies should support efforts to further commercialize the plant without putting food security at risk.
Domestic use and value addition need to be explored and promoted. Resources should be allocated to fight cassava diseases. As a key agricultural commodity, a food security crop and a driver of development, cassava should be a priority of action for governments and donors in East Africa.
Luca Alinovi is the Acting Senior Emergency Coordinator FAO REOA. Roberto Ridolfi Head of Delegation European Union Delegation to Uganda