Championing the cause of cassava
Cassava is an essential part of the diet of more than half a billion people. Despite its importance as a staple crop in many developing countries, cassava has often been neglected in agricultural development policies.
To champion the cause of cassava, FAO has organized a forum of agricultural experts to prepare a plan of action for implementing the Global Development Strategy for Cassava, an initiative to promote this important food crop. The forum, at FAO headquarters in Rome from 25 to 28 April, has been made possible with funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Development Research Center (IDRC).
The Global Development Strategy for Cassava, initiatied by IFAD, was prepared through a series of consultations with cassava producers, processors, the private sector, government ministries, international and non-governmental organizations, technical and research centres and donor agencies.
"A broad consensus has been reached that cassava can spur rural development," says Marcio Porto, Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service. There is also broad agreement on what needs to be achieved to make cassava more competitive in domestic and international markets. Now it's time for us to work together to plan out the precise steps to reach these goals."
Advantages of cassava
Subsistence farmers have long appreciated cassava's advantages. It can grow in poor soils on marginal lands where other crops cannot. It requires minimal fertilizer, pesticides and water. Also, because cassava can be harvested anytime from 8 to 24 months after planting, it can be left in the ground as a safeguard against unexpected food shortages. As Mr Porto points out, 'Because it has traditionally been a crop of the poor, expanding the market for cassava can bring direct economic benefits to those who need it most."
Ghana has shown just how important improving cassava cultivation can be in the fight against hunger. Thanks in part to a nearly 40 percent increase in cassava production, Ghana was able to reduce undernourishment more rapidly than any other country between 1980 and 1996. "Experience has shown that growth in cassava production and consumption can be an import engine for agricultural development in developing countries," says Mr Porto.
Improved processing is essential
Once harvested, cassava deteriorates quickly, so it must be eaten or processed quickly. Although some varieties can be eaten raw or cooked like potatoes, many contain high levels of cyanogenic glucosides that must be removed before they can be eaten. The toxins are typically removed from these bitter varieties by peeling and grating the root to make a pulp that is then left to ferment slightly before being pressed, dried and roasted. In Brazil, this processed cassava meal is known as farinha de mandioca and in West Africa, gari. Gari accounts for 70 percent of Nigeria's total cassava consumption. In other parts of Africa, the fermented cassava pulp is pounded into a paste, known as foo- foo.
If these traditional foods are to become the basis for commercially viable local industries, new and improved processing technologies will be required. Commercial cassava producers and processors need to find ways of increasing production, reducing labour costs and improving product quality in order to compete with imported grains.
Demand for traditional cassava foods will grow as population increases in developing countries, but consumer trends are expected to change as more and more people move to the cities. Cassava producers and processors will need to respond to the growing urban demand for foods that are more convenient or seen as more modern, such as store-bought bread and baked goods made from imported wheat flour.
The development of high-quality cassava flour could help many developing countries reduce their dependence on imported grains. One report has stated that a 15 percent substitution of cassava flour for wheat flour could save Nigeria close to US$ 15 million a year in foreign exchange. In Jamaica, bakers of 'bammy bread' made from cassava meal have been successful in carving out a profitable market niche. "Simply put, many governments could save money by making sound investments in the development of their commercial cassava industry," says Mr Porto.
In addition, Latin American countries, particularly Brazil and Colombia, have made progress in developing and marketing cassava snack foods, similar to potato chips, as well as frozen 'heat and serve' cassava products. The growing importance of manufactured cassava products in Brazil has led to the creation of franchising chains with 141 stores all over the country, such as the group "Casa do Pão de Queijo", which sells cassava cheese bread and coffee.
Animal feed, industrial starch
In Asia, where rice is the most popular staple food, commercial cassava production has focussed on animal feed, mainly in the form of chips and pellets for export. Thailand has led the way. Over the past 30 years, thanks to effective public/private partnerships and sound Government policies, a competitive cassava industry has been created almost from scratch. In 1995, Thailand exported 3.3 million tonnes of cassava pellets, mostly to the European Union.
In Africa and Latin America, the domestic market for cassava-based animal feed shows potential for growth. More than 30 percent of the cassava produced in Latin America is used for domestic animal feed, compared to less than 2 percent in Africa. Research in Cameroon has shown that poultry breeders could lower their production costs by 40 percent by incorporating cassava into their chicken feed.
Asia also leads the way in the production of starches derived from cassava. Cassava starch has unique properties, such as its high viscosity and its resistance to freezing, which make it competitive with other industrial starches. More research needs to be done on the development and marketing of cassava-based starches.
The emphasis is on information
"At this forum, we've placed the emphasis on information", says Mr Porto. "It's important for us to get the message out about the importance of cassava to millions and millions of families in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the contribution that cassava can make to the well-being of millions of cassava producers and processors."
However, as Mr Porto makes clear it's not just the general public that needs to become more aware of the importance of cassava. " Everyone who has a stake in the growth of the cassava industry, including governments, producers and processors, needs to be better informed", says Mr Porto. "Also donor agencies need to know more about ongoing development projects related to cassava so that they don't waste money duplicating their efforts."
New publication: The world cassava economy: Facts trends and outlook (currently available only in English). To order contact the Sales and Marketing Group, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy; by fax at +39 (06) 5705 3360; or email firstname.lastname@example.org
26 April 2000