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Agriculture - Nutrition | Science - Education

"Myths hinder potential of cassava in Africa"

afrol News, 30 March - Many half-true and some totally false notions about cassava in many African countries prevent the realisation of the crop's full poverty-busting and livelihoods-enhancing potential, according to Ugandan research. As in Asia, cassava could develop into an African cash crop industry.

Anneke Fermont, a researcher of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Uganda, is fed up with the many myths surrounding cassava in Africa.

One important myth hindering more widespread cultivation of cassava is that it is "a poor man's crop that does not require much labour." This is not always the case, holds Ms Fermont. "Our research in eastern and central Uganda and western Kenya showed that cassava is grown, consumed and marketed by both well-to-do and poor farmers alike."

Cassava is an important food security crop that provides about a third of the starchy staple food consumed in many African countries. It is also an important cash crop, generating nearly as much income as the higher-valued maize.

Contrary to popular belief that growing cassava requires little labour, IITA's research showed that, for example, its labour requirements for weeding are much higher than for most other food crops. "This is because many farmers tend to weed their cereal and legumes first and cassava last," the researcher found.

"The crop will therefore develop slower and is not able to compete with the weeds." explains Ms Fermont. "This forces farmers to weed their cassava fields as many as five times," she adds.

A second myth is that, "since cassava could grow on poor soils, it does not need fertilizer." This is untrue, Ms Fermont says. This myth was stemming from the fact that "cassava is a hardy crop that could survive in poor soils and still give a decent yield," she adds.

However, she explains that "studies show that farmers plant cassava on all soil types and, like any other crop, it responds well to manure and fertilizer application. The crop's tolerance of poor soils does not mean that it would not benefit from the added nutrients provided by fertilizers."

As a result of these myths, most efforts by governments and other stakeholders "have geared towards promoting cassava mainly as a food security crop and less as a cash crop," Ms Fermont deplores. "However, following its success as a cash crop in Asia, its potential as a cash crop is now slowly being realised in Africa," she explains.

Cassava was said to be rich in starch that can be used in the food, textile, and paper, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. It is also used to make glucose syrup, adhesives, ethanol and alcohol, livestock feed and biodiesel fuel. Another important raw material is high quality cassava flour that can be used as a substitute for wheat in the baking industry.

The myths were also found to contribute to the low levels of cassava yield in the continent. A related two-year study carried out by Ms Fermont and her team found that the average yield of farmers was 6.8 tonnes per hectare in western Kenya and 10.6 tonnes per hectare in Uganda. This was very low compared to its potential yield of over 50 tonnes per hectare under proper cultural management.

With such low yields, East African farmers would not be able to support industries that use cassava as a source of raw material, Ms Fermont holds. However, when farmers follow modern crop management practices, use improved cassava varieties, and apply fertilizers, their yields could more than double, as results of IITA field trials have shown.

"This shows the tremendous cash-crop potential of cassava," says Ms Fermont. "Putting in place measures to increase yields such as good agronomic practices and access to improved varieties and agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and manure, and attracting industrial investors can have a significant impact on the livelihoods of millions of cassava farmers in East Africa. However, the attitude and perception towards the crop must first change."

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