Farmers in Burundi are planting cassava again, with EU/FAO support
Munyika, Burundi – With smooth strokes of his machete Ernest Nduwimana is taking cuttings from a cassava plant on a field near Munyika, his village in Burundi’s north-western Cibitoke province. Satisfaction seems to radiate from his face, under a straw hat shielding him from the burning morning sun.
Ernest, 26, has placed a lot of hope in the planting season that is about to start. He is one of the farmers to begin growing healthy cassava again, five years after an aggressive strain of Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) began a devastating march through his country, which was struggling to overcome the ravages of a decade of civil war.
“My family has suffered,” he says about the consequences of a disease that deprived many subsistence farmers like him of one of their most important staple crops.
Used to having it once or twice a day, he hopes, naturally, for a good harvest that will allow him to eat some cassava again soon. Preferably raw, and with peanuts, he says. But more than anything else Ernest, who still lives with his mother and four brothers and sisters, hopes to raise enough money for the dowry to marry Nadine, his girlfriend.
The mother plantation
Ernest is taking cuttings from the land of his neighbour Telesphore Ngaruye, a farmer who put arable land at the disposal of an EU-funded FAO operation aimed at bringing healthy cassava to Burundi’s vulnerable population.
Launched in 2006 with the financial support of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), the initiative is based on the multiplication and distribution of healthy cassava planting material through an extensive and colourful network that includes individual farmers like Telesphore, as well as farmer associations, schools and even churches.
Salvator Kaboneka, an FAO agronomist, explains how it all began on “the mother plantation,” as he calls it, a cassava field in Mparambo, not far from Munyika. Here, on 20 hectares, FAO started planting disease free stems in 2005, initially with Belgian and American support.
“Every cassava plant provides at least ten usable cuttings. At that rate, it will take only one more year to replant the 84,000 hectares of cassava this country had prior to the arrival of CMD,” Salvator says. The mathematics are as simple as they are striking. The original 20 hectares have grown to 1600. “Multiplied by ten, that will be 16,000 after the coming season, and 160,000 by the end of 2008.”
Such spectacular progress will go a long way in solving “the big problem there was in Burundi in 2003,” as Salvator puts it. CMD had appeared the year before. Yield losses attaining ninety percent were record. Prices sky-rocketed. And it came right on top of a devastating civil war. According to FAO’s 2006 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report, undernourishment affected two-thirds of the population in 2001/3, compared to less than half before hostilities begun ten years earlier.
The sufferings of Ernest and his family are tragically connected to Burundi’s conflict. When fighting erupted in 1993, combatants came down from the hills and took the few head of livestock they had at the time.
A cloud passes over Ernest’s face. The men also killed his father, he mutters. Then, emphatically, he adds that never will he turn to raising cattle again.
Farming however has been full of ups and downs too, and strangely linked to Ernest’s own life.
In 2003, he planted cassava on two hectares of borrowed land. Then, like now, Ernest had the same intention: use part of the yield to pay dowry. “Yes,” he said, “I already wanted to get married.”
But, fate struck: its name was Cassava Mosaic Disease. And while his harvest withered, Ernest’s dream went up in smoke.
Eventually, he has overcome this misfortune. But, with a new harvest on the horizon, one burning question of that episode remains unanswered: who was the lucky lady back then?
Ernest face clears again, he smiles. “It was Nadine,” he says. “She has waited on me.”
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