Magic Cassava

By David F. Paqui
When I was a little boy in Benin and I was hungry but my mother was not home to prepare something, my saviour was “Gari”, a food derived from cassava. I would put water on it and after waiting a minutes it would swell. I ate and drank until my stomach was full. My first week in China as foreign student, left me hungry too, since most Chinese food contains added sugar. The “Gari” I had brought with me was again my salvation. When I visited my relatives in Ogun State in Nigeria, one of my cousins, Matthew, had “Eba”, which is also made from “Gari”, as his favourite food. Whenever he demanded it he would shout: “Eba makes me strong, Eba makes me strong”.

Even though it has played a prominent role in my nutrition, I had no idea cassava was such a powerful, or dare I say magic crop, until I had the opportunity to join the President of IFAD, Kanayo F. Nwanze, in the field during his official trip to Cameroon from 29 February to 3 March 2012. I discovered that cassava is changing the lives of an entire community of smallholder farmers in Minkoa, where the Roots and Tubers Market-driven Development Programme was implemented. This programme is supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) with the contribution of two important research centres: the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the National Institute of Research for Agricultural Development (IRAD).

On 2 March 2012, the discovery of cassava as magic crop began during the visit to IITA and IRAD centres close to Yaoundé where I learned more about the continuing cassava revolution. In Africa, particularly in West and Central regions, each person consumes 80 kilograms of cassava each year. Cassava is also used for food, animal feed and industrial products, and requires less labour than other staple crops (21 per cent working days compared to maize, yam and rice). However, it requires considerable post-harvest labour because the roots are highly perishable and must be processed into a storable form soon after harvest. It is important to point out that IFAD has provided both centres with research grants. Mr Hanna of IITA said: “IFAD funding has helped researchers to develop and disseminate cassava varieties with multiple resistance and or tolerance to pest and disease constraints and to disseminate natural enemies under the IITA-biological control programme to tackle some of the pests.” The two research centres have supplied the beneficiaries of the programme IFAD supported Roots and Tubers Market-driven Development Programme with 4 million of news improved varieties of cassava.

I spoke to Immaculate Ngandje, a 50 year-old who is also a member of “Comité Villageois de Concertation (CVC)” of Batoke and a beneficiary of the IFAD-supported programme, she told me more about this magical crop. She said: “I used local varieties of cassava and produced only 23 to 25 trucks per hectare. From 2007, I started using the improved cassava varieties and I now produce 35 to 40 trucks per hectare. My income also has increased from CFA 90 000 to CFA 200 000 each month.”

When we arrived in Minkoa, a group of women were singing. The song was dedicated to cassava with the words: “cassava is food security, with cassava we can send our children to school, with cassava we can go to the hospital when we are sick, with cassava we can have a land and a house, with cassava we will have a car and with cassava we will have internet one day.” Many of those involved in the programme are women. Madame Susanne Nke, the President of CVC Minkoa illustrated the achievements of the IFAD-supported programme. She emphasized how the programme has improved the conditions of women through production, processing and marketing. She said that the CVC has used 64 hectares of land, among 16 in common and the remaining by village and individual members. The group has produced 430,000 cassava cuttings and sold 205,000 for the total amount of CFA 2.05 million and distributed 225,000 to the members. Thanks to the rehabilitation of rural roads, the members of the CVC Minkoa have access to markets and sold the cassava processed products for the total amount of CFA 15 million. But all this could not be possible without the contribution of research. Before, the cassava yield in Minkoa was 5 tonnes per hectare. Now with the improved varieties, the smallholder farmers produce up to 25 to 30 tonnes per hectare.
Madame Nke said, “the rural women of our villages must really reach full autonomy. The arduous nature of their work must be reduced. We want to move from the hoe to the tractor. To transform our lives we need modern equipment, water, electricity, telephone, and why not internet?” For me this visit was proof how through research, people are able to make a business of farming. And I think that these powerful women will be able to see the reality of internet one day. With the magic of cassava, anything is possible.

This field visit is a proof that agriculture can be a business and IFAD supported Roots and Tubers Market-driven Development Programme is making the difference in the like of the community of Minkoa. With the dynamism of the rural women of the area, I believe that magic cassava will really bring internet in Minkoa. CVC Minkoa keep up, you are the best!