Scientists and farmers’ associations have high hopes that a variety of cassava could help build their resilience to droughts and food insecurity.
Cameroon’s National Development Programme for Roots and Tubers (PNDRT) has distributed seedlings of a new high-yield, pest-resistant variety of cassava to 1,000 smallholder farmers - most of them women - all over the country with a view to buying back cuttings from them to multiply distribution in coming years.
While regular cassava varieties produce 9-10 tons per hectare, these improved varieties can yield as much as 20-35, according to Rachid Hanna, country representative with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and PNDRT. The two institutions have been working since 2005 to develop these new species, with backing from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
Cassava is the second most important source of carbohydrates in sub-Saharan African, after maize, and is eaten by around 500 million people globally every day, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Every year 280 million tons are produced, with half the supply coming from Africa.
The crop is seen as key to boosting food security amid climate change. Regular varieties are considered by Cameroonians to be a “crop of last resort” as they can grow on poor soils and in difficult climatic conditions, and require little to no fertilizers.
About 80 percent of Cameroonian households, most of them subsistence farmers, consume cassava on a daily basis, though a 2010 study by Plant Foods for Human Nutrition indicated that consumption of cassava is a risk factor for inadequate vitamin A, zinc and/or iron intake.
Despite this, very little research on cassava varieties to date has taken place in Africa. The IITA is trying to change this, having introduced new varieties across the tropical cassava belt.
The World Food Programme has an ongoing programme to deliver food to 200,000 Cameroonians in the far north, who have faced crop failure, livestock losses and high food prices that have barred them from being able to access food. Over half of families in northern Cameroon live in poverty.
“We see it as a new dawn for cassava farmers in Cameroon,” said Hanna, adding that the new variety should improve the nutrition and livelihoods of farmers. Several varieties have been developed to fit one or more of the country’s five ecological ones.
The new species is low in cyanide content (cassava leaves and tubers contain cyanide which disappears to trace levels when properly processed); is more resistant to drought as well as other climates including very hot temperatures; and matures in 12, not 18-26 months. In studies over the past three years, these new strains have doubled harvest sizes.
Some 2.5 million tons of cassava is grown in Cameroon each year. Most of it is turned into flour; the rest is fermented to make liquor, to feed animals, and increasingly processed into biofuel (ethanol).
But early-maturing varieties can also have a downside - they rot rapidly when in the ground, which can cause farmers to abandon species en masse.
Felicitas Atanga, head of programmes with FAO in Cameroon, warned that no matter how high-yield the seeds, they have to also produce cassava that tastes good - as in, is sweet rather than bitter - to be picked up on a mass scale.
Mbairanodji André, controller of production, transformation and post-harvest for PNDRT, told IRIN they are working hard to explain to the farmers involved that they must start to harvest at nine months, no later.
To really add value to smallholders lives, each stage of the production process needs to be improved, said farmers, including helping them get their product to market quickly.
Cassava does not store well beyond a few days, as it is 70 percent moisture, yet just a tiny minority of Cameroon’s roads are paved, making it difficult to get products from rural to urban areas.
Experts agree that a holistic view must be taken, but large-scale infrastructure development has not yet prioritized the needs of small farmers.
For André the next priority is processing to turn cassava into a far more lucrative cash crop. “The next stage for PNDRT or the government is to move cassava from being just a food security solution to processing it in a way that it can be used for industrial purposes,” he told IRIN.