Rooting out hunger in Africa -- and making Darwin proud

Thursday September 16 2010

Cassava outgrowers set out their products in Kisarawe Coast Region in Tanzania. The crop might be a solution to hunger in Africa. File Poto

The "magic" cassava roots the Nigerian farmer pointed to might have made Charles Darwin smile -- and they may also turn out to be part of the solution to hunger across swathes of Africa.

"If you uproot it, you can see six or seven tubers," said Bashir Adeyinka Adesiyan, a farmer from southwestern Nigeria, the world's largest producer of cassava. "The one we were planting before, you would only get two or three."

He called it a "magic plant."

Scientists in Nigeria and six other African nations are experimenting with a fast-yielding, disease-resistant species of cassava, a root useful in so many ways that Darwin, the father of evolution theory, once marveled at its diversity.

Workers have to frighten off porcupines seeking to feast on the chubby new cassava stems on Adesiyan's farm, where a crooked path divides the old species from the new, grown side by side to be able to compare them.

The results so far are glowing: the new plants stand taller, and appear stronger and more vibrant. When their tubers are pulled from the ground, they resemble fat, oversized fingers.


The cassava stems are not genetically-modified. They were obtained through a conventional process of breeding and selection over more than a decade.

Researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are distributing the stems to local farmers free of charge.

They hope to get the improved cassava into 75,000 farms by the end of the year to increase yields in seven selected Nigerian states.

It was a carnival-like scene recently in the farming town of Ifon in southwestern Nigeria as officials distributed 1,500 packs of the new cassava stems, with traditional Yoruba drumming and dancing.

Bintu Aderemi, a 55-year-old woman cassava farmer, said the stems "are God-sent. They thrive well and I am very happy."

Developed in response to the 2008 global food crisis, the project is first aimed at tackling hunger in Africa -- particularly in drought-hit Chad and Niger.

But the versatile cassava plant -- which has a wide range of industrial uses -- could also one day provide a much-needed raw material to meet China's growing needs, becoming a potentially lucrative export crop for Africa.

The first results have been promising, scientists and farmers say.

Financed by USAID, the project targets about 400,000 farmers directly in seven African nations: Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Nigeria, IITA officials said.

"We want to double their yields," said Richardson Okechukwu, IITA coordinator of the project in Nigeria.

The 5.3 million dollar project in Africa "will ensure food security for Nigerians and neighbouring northern countries like Niger and Chad, and will also provide more roots for large-scale cassava industries," he said.

Cassava is one of the world's largest sources of carbohydrates and is eaten in various forms in a long list of countries.

In Nigeria, it is ground up for traditional dishes such as "garri" and "fufu," which are types of porridge served with soup.

In some African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, cassava leaves are also consumed for their protein, Okechukwu said.

Long-term, African farmers also stand to make a potential profit from the new strain of cassava, whose industrial uses include the manufacture of tyres, adhesives, ethanol, pharmaceuticals, biofuels and livestock feeds.

"China could buy almost everything we produce. That is in the future," IITA director general Peter Hartmann said.

The crop could be an opportunity for farmers in Nigeria, where agriculture has played a diminished role in the economy dominated by oil.

Though Nigeria leads the world in cassava production -- 44.6 million tonnes in 2008, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation -- it is mainly for domestic consumption. Thailand is the world's largest exporter of cassava.

"We know that with climate change and the increased drought, definitely there is going to be more and more demand," Hartmann said.