Cassava: Finding a Trigger for a Golden Bullet

by Courtney Fukuda:

Guiding a tour of the agricultural testing grounds on the eastern side of the island of Zanzibar, Mr. Haji Soleh of Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture pointed to the half-dozen protruding bulbs at the base of an uprooted government tree. Sweat dripped from Soleh’s brow as he pulled one of the tubers off and sliced away at its fibrous skin, revealing the chalky substance beneath.  “This, you see, is the cassava root.  It is our most reliable food source – a true miracle crop.”

Cassava is a potato-like tuberous root native to South America but abundant in most tropical and subtropical regions of Africa. Because of its high carbohydrate content and ability to thrive without the use of expensive pesticides and fertilizers, cassava has been lauded by many as a potential “golden bullet” in the world’s fight against hunger. Indeed, the plant provides food security to poor farmers all across East Africa who have seen other crops dwindle in recent years due to desertification and rising fertilizer prices. Cassava weathers these challenges better than most. Unfortunately, it has yet to realize its full potential in a region that has for decades suffered from poverty and starvation.

Mr. Haji Soleh of Tanzania's Ministry of Agriculture gives the Globalist a taste of raw cassava. (Martin/TYG)

A highly perishable crop, cassava must be processed within twenty-four hours of harvest.  Typically, this means grinding the root into a fine starch or flash-frying meat into cassava chips, processes that must occur in an industrial environment.  Getting cassava to the processing plant is much more difficult than producing it: preserving cassava for long journeys requires cold chains, modern technologies, and consulting expertise that are largely unaffordable for small-scale farmers in Tanzania. Furthermore, tariffs and other trade barriers make it difficult to for East African trade to cross domestic borders, which creates difficulties in transporting cassava from areas of abundance in Africa to areas of scarcity. According to Dr. Victor Manyong, an Agricultural Economist at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Dar Es Salaam, “Over 30 million tons of fresh cassava are harvested annually in Tanzania – enough to feed most of our country’s starving people – but with the lack of durable infrastructure and government support, we still see many children die hungry every day.”

While transporting cassava within Tanzania may be difficult, this challenge pales in comparison to that faced by people in neighboring countries, where hunger is a larger problem and where cassava is not produced in abundance. “The Democratic Republic of Congo, a country filled with civil strife and corruption, for example, is forced to import millions of tons of wheat and rice from the United States every year,” Manyong said. The reason is simple: “The two weeks it takes to transport crops from the U.S. to the D.R.C. pales in comparison to the three months it would take for the same volume of cassava to travel from Tanzania, despite its proximity.” Not only is there a low density of durable roads from rural to urban areas, but existing roads are often of poor quality.  Lack of quality roads, combined with price subsidies given by the United States government to U.S. farmerks, makes U.S. wheat highly competitive in African markets. Unlike the U.S., the D.R.C. simply cannot afford the high costs of subsidizing agriculture for poor local farmers.

Recognizing this problem, some forward-thinking non-profits have stepped in to help.  Bill and Melinda Gates recently contributed $22.3 million to economic development in East Africa, of which a considerable amount will go to finding ways to improve cassava transportation and preservation.

The Cassava Value Added for Africa (CVAA) project, which seeks to provide leverage for individuals involved in cassava production, processing, and marketing, is one of the beneficiaries of the Gates’ grant.  Whereas traditionally processed cassava chips provide farmers little more than temporary sustenance for their families, shelf-stable High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF), a CVAA initiative, is longer lasting and thus affords the possibility of a reliable marketplace and meaningful income. Dr. Francis Modaha of the Food and Nutrition Center in Dar es Salaam has teamed up with his colleagues to research HQCF. Said Modaha, “When you mix processed cassava with maize and wheat, the various nutrients not only enrich the overall quality of the flour, but also improve the livelihood of all of those involved” by creating a longer shelf life and higher retail value. Modaha believes the transformation from food crop to cash crop alone could drive an economic boom in East Africa.

The Gates’ grant has also included a significant contribution to the Pan African Cassava Initiative (PACI).  Catherine Njuguna, Regional Communication Coordinator for the PACI in Dar es Salaam, winks upon mention of cassava’s enormous potential. “The golden part of cassava has not even been revealed,” she whispered. “The crop is a tremendous raw material for ethanol, bread, starch, and pharmaceutical products, and could essentially be the sole source of economic prosperity for the entire developing world.  The problem is most cassava producing places have not even tapped the international market!” But how can they do so without any marketing support?  Information about the supply and demand for cassava is often unavailable, resulting in the coexistence of surplus and famine.

Though cassava may be capable of withstanding drought, it is to no avail if people facing hunger cannot access the crop because of roadblocks in transportation, storage, or information.  The CVAA, PACI, and other such projects have undeniable merits, but as long as infrastructure deficiencies continue to hinder transportation of cassava from farms to households, as well as across East African borders, little progress can be made. Government, therefore, must be the driving force behind these efforts.  Until it builds the roads and and tears down the barriers that prevent this golden bullet from being triggered, cassava will simply remain a symbol of unfulfilled potential.

Courtney Fukuda’12 is an Economics major in Berkeley College.