Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Unleashing the power of Cassava to fight hunger and poverty in Malawi

Unleashing the power of the Cassava in Africa, a project funded by USAID and implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in seven countries in East, central and Western Africa, Malawi included is changing the image of the crop and creating a new breed of rural entrepreneurs who are improving their lives and those of surrounding farmers by providing employment and a market for their cassava.

El-Niño sets man on a new cassava path
Meet Augustine Phiri, a farmer from Lilongwe, Malawi, who thanks to an El-Nino warning, changed his attention from maize and tobacco to cassava opening a world of opportunities that would not have been possible with the former crops. In his MbwadiMbwadi gardens in Lilongwe, where he also has a cassava processing plant donated by the Kellogg foundation, the crop takes up the giant share of the land.

Mr Phiri is one of the 22 processors benefiting from the Unleashing the Power of the Cassava in Africa (UPoCA) project of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that is working to promote cassava as a food security and income-earner among vulnerable communities in Africa. It is working to build the capacity of farmers and processors such as Phiri to grow and process the versatile drought resistant crop.

Under UPoCA, Mr Phiri has been trained on production of high quality cassava flour and other products and recipes using the flour such as donuts, cakes, cookies, chin chins, tit bits and gari, a fermented and cooked cassava flour that is very popular in West Africa; on packaging and marketing, and quality and safety management issues.

After attending the quality and safety management training held in August 2010, he has since installed taps for washing hands all over the centre, all his permanent staff wear uniform and have medical certificates to show they are fit to handle human food.

Mr Phiri has been processing and selling high quality fermented cassava flour, Kondowole, for making nsima, and unfermented high quality flour that is among others used for baking as a substitute for wheat either on its own or mixed with the wheat flour. He sells to local shops and supermarkets and neighbours who come to buy at his home. After the trainings, he has added a new product, gari, and he already has an order of 250 kgs per month from a Nigerian restaurant in Lilongwe.

Mr Phiri says he discovered cassava in 1997 when his wife learnt about the looming el-Niño that would result in extreme climactic conditions at a workshop. They were encouraged to grow cassava which would perform relatively well compared to most crops.

“I did not know much about growing cassava. However, I visited the government’s Chitedze research station where I got more information and was given 30 bundles of planting stems,’ he said.

In 2003, the enterprising farmer was selected as a model farmer under Initiative for Development and Equity in Africa (IDEA) of the Rockefeller foundation promoting cassava commercialization. He took part in a 14-day tour to Tanzania to learn from IITA’s cassava processing sites around Dar es Salaam.

UPoCA in addition to the trainings has donated a grater and a presser, and is also supporting him to tackle some of the bottle necks he is experiencing in his cassava processing.

Processing is hampered during rainy season when drying, an important part of the process, is nearly impossible. He also has to travel long distances to mill his dried cassava chips into flour. UPoCA is looking into appropriate drying technologies such as solar or steam dryers. It will also donate a hammer mill to save him the long trips.

Phiri would like the Malawi people to change their mind set towards cassava: “To the Malawian, food is maize. They only reach out for cassava in times of famine when maize is not available. It is a fire extinguisher but is it not better and less costly to prevent the fire in the first place?’ he asked.

First starch factory in Malawi is revived
Another beneficiary of UPoCA is Mr Elimasi Masimbe, 54, owner of the first ever starch fac¬tory in Malawi that was using cassava as a raw material. However, he had closed shop after only three months in operation as he failed to secure markets from the targeted packaging companies. A series of eye-opening trainings and refurbishment of the factory and equipment by the project has put him back in business.

Today, the factory is a hive of activity processing starch and using the leftovers to make high quality flour, fer¬mented and unfermented and even cooking briquettes.
Alex Nthonyiwa, a project officer with UPoCA says Mr Masimbe, owner of Masimbe investments, was trained on production of high quality cassava flour and other products from cassava, packaging, and marketing and on quality and safety management.

“We also helped him to improve the quality of the starch by renovating the factory and the equipment. We changed the sieves and grater blades which were made of mild steel to aluminium coated ones which do not rust,” he said.

The father of five says the training opened his eyes on other products he can process from cassava and gave him the push to revive his factory. "I did not know we could make cassava flour because in my commu¬nity we only boil it and take it for breakfast or as a snack. Now, I make the fermented flour from the leftovers from starch processing and from all the wastes, make briquettes for cooking,” he said

He is selling high quality unfermented and fermented flours to his neighbours and supplies Kapani Enterprises Ltd, a meat processing factory in Lilongwe, 200 kgs of starch in a month. However, his fac¬tory has a much higher capacity and he is actively looking for more markets.

James Chingangi, deputy production manager at Kapani Enterprises Ltd, says the company usually imported its starch from South Africa but a shortage had forced them to explore local options and they had discovered the cassava starch making factory in Lilongwe.

“First we requested for samples which at first were a bit sandy. But when we pointed this out to them, they refined their processing and now it is good. Every time we run out of starch, we run to them and they never fail us,’ he said.

He says the starch from the factory, which is used for making cold meat and sausages, was reasonably priced and readily available unlike the one coming in from South Africa and they were looking at slowly weaning off the imported one.

Mr Masimbe who started growing cassava on his own initiative in 2000 says he caught the attention of Malawi Enterprise Development Institute (MEDI) that had received funds from Kellogg Foundation to promote cassava commercialization. They were trained on how grow cassava and get good yields and were also given high-yielding varie¬ties, Sauti (a bitter variety) and Manyokola (a sweet variety). He was also given the starch factory to run and purchase cassava from surrounding farmers.

“I was given the factory with different processing machines and a borehole to ensure constant water supply. I started making starch in 2008 targeting the Packaging Industry of Malawi (PIM). However, when I took a sample of the starch, they said it had too much iron. And after 3 months, we stopped processing and closed the factory.”

Mr Nthonyiwa says this was the first starch factory in Malawi and has a lot of potential. “PIM currently imports its starch. If we can get to the bottom of the iron issue then they would not import anymore,” he said

The USAID funded project started in 2008 in response to the food crisis in Africa aims to promote cassava as a food security and income earner making it an engine for economic growth, especially in the rural areas says Dr. Braima James, UPoCA project manager.

“It focuses on the cassava because of its ability to create low and steady prices for basic food products. The project aims to empower farmers and their organizations to provide an adequate supply of cassava products at economically affordable prices,” he said. “It also aims at diversifying cassava uses by stimulating the production of value added cassava based food and industrial products

He says the strategy includes developing and availing to farmers improved cassava varieties and equipping them and agro-processors with the knowledge and skills to reduce postharvest losses. A range of user friendly improved post harvest technologies developed by IITA and national partners have been disseminated for the production of starch, dried chips, high quality cassava flour and other products, thereby adding value to the crop. The processed products have a longer shelf-life.

In Malawi, says Ted Nyekanyeka, the country project officer, the project hopes to distribute planting material to 1,500 farmers. So far the project has distributed 329,750 planting stems to over a thousand farmers dur¬ing the last growing season including orphan care homes, AIDS support and women groups. This growing season, the project expects to support even more from its 40 ha of seed farm expected to provide planting material for 500 ha of land.

The project is working in Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria Mozambique, Democratic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Simple science-based solutions can reduce hunger and poverty

Last Saturday, October 16 was the United Nation’s World Food Day. A day set aside for us all to reflect on the fate of the 950 million women and children worldwide that, according to UN statistics, go to sleep hungry.

The vast majority of the hungry, obviously are the world’s poor. Rarely would anyone with money in their pockets lack food. Unfortunately, majority of the world’s poor and hungry live in Africa.

Why has Africa not able to meet its food needs despite years of investing in the agricultural sector? There are as many reasons as there are answers and solutions. However, there are a few areas I would like to highlight that would make a big difference if they received adequate attention.

Post harvest loss - the big hole that food meant for the hungry falls into - is top of my list. Farm produce rotting in the fields is a very common scenario in Africa. Due to poor infrastructure, small-holder farmers are unable to get them to the market or in times of abundance, they flood the market, prices drop drastically and discouraged farmers let them rot. The good harvest becomes a curse.

Early in the year, we saw farmers in Kenya pouring their milk when the production outweighed the capacity of the industry to absorb it. This must have been a very painful exercise for them – it was literary pouring much-needed money down the drain.

Similarly in Tanzania, we are just coming out of the oranges season. If you travel in the orange-growing areas, the fruits are rotting in the farms and in the markets. On the other hand in the supermarkets, a box of orange juice, most probably imported, fetches a tidy sum.

Why didn’t the Kenyan farmers make cheese and yoghurt? Why aren’t their Tanzanian counterparts making juices and jams? Is it lack of capital, knowledge, processing equipment, confidence by the farmers or even a pioneer to set an example for the farmers? It is a combination of all these and others.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is working with small-holder farmers to promote simple technologies of processing crops into valuable and marketable products to avoid such post-harvest losses and improve their income.

The institute has had immense success in commercializing cassava by promoting the production of high quality cassava flour and starch. The flour has a wide range of uses at home and in the bakery industries to make cakes, bread, biscuits and other products either on its own or mixed with wheat flour. The starch has diverse uses in the brewery, pharmaceutical, textile, paper, plywood and food industries.

The old crop of Africa is hardy and performs relatively well in drought conditions and with little inputs such as fertilizer.

By using the cassava alternatives, many African countries would save millions of US Dollars by reducing importation of wheat and starch and, at the same time create income for many in the value chain: farmers, transporters, machine fabricators and small scale processor. It would also create employment in the rural areas reducing rural to urban migration.

IITA is using the same approach for soybean, banana and cowpea and the same can be extended to many other crops grown by African farmers.

The farmers can also avoid the glut in the market by changing the timing of their harvest to coincide with low season when the demand and prices are high.

A study by IITA in Uganda - the second largest producer and consumer of bananas in the world - showed that with better timing, farmers can harvest their banana ‘off season’ when prices are better avoiding the huge price fluctuations and post-harvest losses experienced during high production season.

According to the research, though the bunches harvested off-season were relatively lighter by 25% compared to those harvested in peak season, their price was up to 50% higher. Thus they were more profitable.

To fight hunger and its evil twin sister, poverty, efforts to increase Africa’s small-holder farmers production sustainably and in ways that also put money in their pockets must be redoubled. The technologies that enable them to do this must be made available to them with all the necessary support to implement them.

Under this year's theme, United Against Hunger, I salute the men and women working tirelessly to end hunger. Let the struggle continue because it is possible!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Group riding high, thanks to an old friend, cassava

“With the money I made from the sale of my cassava roots and stem (as planting material) and the dividends I received from the group, I have now finished constructing a video den, purchased a TV and a DVD player, and installed a solar system to power them. I will be charging the villagers a small fee to watch news and movies,” Peter Mtoi, 61 year old shows us his latest acquisition with pride.

By his side, his wife, Mary Mtoi, 51, adds that they have also purchased a commercial charcoal oven to bake bread and cakes made of mixed cassava and wheat flour to sell to the village and nearby shopping centre.

The Mtois living in Tongwe village in Bagamoyo District, Pwani region are members of a local cassava farmers group, Wambato (Wakulima wa mhogo Bagamoyo Tongwe) which has been processing cassava into flour thereby getting more income as compared to the sale of fresh roots.

Ten years ago, things were very different and they had almost given up growing cassava following its devastation by the cassava brown streak (CBSD) which causes a dry rot in the tubers rendering them useless – they are not edible nor can they be milled into flour. All their local varieties were susceptible to the rot disease and they were desperate.

The Roots and Tuber programme of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Cooperatives introduced and tested together with the farmers six varieties growing elsewhere that had shown good levels of resistance to the disease.

‘Out of the six varieties they brought us for testing, we found Kiroba to the best. It was high yielding, resistant to the disease and sweet,’ Mtoi said.

They were also trained on good agronomical practices to get maximum yield such as when and how to plant, spacing and selection of good planting material. Soon the group was back to the cassava growing business.

Cassava cassava everywhere

However, following the rapid adoption of Kiroba and better farming practices, there was now more cassava than the markets could absorb, prices plummeted and the farmers were in despair again.

The Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) came to their rescue and constructed a processing centre equipped with simple machines to process cassava into flour which has a longer shelf life and fetches more money than the highly perishable fresh cassava roots which start to rot three days after harvesting. To show its commitment, the group purchased the bricks and provide labour for the construction.

From 2009, the group has been receiving support from the Unleashing the Power of the Cassava in Africa (UPOCA) of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in tackling emerging challenges to take their production to a higher level.

In 2009 the project trained Tabu Maghembe, the government extension officer working with the group and selected representatives on production of high quality cassava flour and new products and recipes using the flour; quality and safety management, and labelling, packaging and marketing.

The group warmly welcomed and implemented all the new ideas received on their own costs. It has since constructed a toilet at the centre, raised the racks for drying the cassava to avoid contamination by dust or domestic animals, and started using plastic bags to spread the cassava chips to dry.

‘As you can see we have notices for everyone to wash their hands before touching anything as per the hygiene quality and standards training, ‘Maghembe said. “We are working towards getting our flour certified by the Tanzania Bureau of Standards.”

A credit scheme

The group has a bank account and pays dividends to its members twice a year from some of the profits made. It also buys their cassava for processing and pays them a daily wage for their labour during processing. The neighbouring community is also benefiting from a ready and better priced market for their cassava.

It also acts as a saving and credit society for both members and surrounding farmers who borrow money for emergencies against the cassava in the field. Once they harvest it, they sell it to the group to repay the loan with a small interest.

One challenge for the group is transporting their dried cassava chips over long distances for milling. The mills are also not exclusive for cassava products and the flour is sometimes contaminated with maize and other grains flour. John Msemo, UPOCA country Mananger says the project will purchase a milling machine for the group and they construct the building to house it.

For the group, this is just but the begining:‘We are ready to continue to grow from strength to strength. We started from the farm and now we are processing and selling to supermarkets in big towns. We are now eyeing markets outside the country,’ said Maghembe.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Return of the cassava: New ways of making popular foods using old crop take village by storm

Cassava, an old neglected crop that is often remembered when all other crops fail, has gained new recognition and prominence among the residence of Tongwe village in Tanga region, Tanzania, who have discovered new ways of utilizing the crop that is adding new and more nutritious twists to their local menu.

The farmers are also earning a higher income from processing the crop into high quality cassava flour (HQCF), a versatile flour developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that can be used for baking and making confectionaries as a substitute for wheat.

They are mixing cassava and wheat flours to make popular foods such as cakes, chapati (round flat fried bread), and mandazi (small squarish donuts) that were previously made with wheat flour only. This has made them more affordable for the villagers.

Christine George, 29, makes chapati which she sells to school children and the local community. She says mixing cassava and wheat flour has increased her profit margin. The married mother of one who is also a cassava famer mixes the two in the ratio of one to three – one cup of wheat flour to three cups of the high quality cassava flour. She also adds eggs and margarine to make them tastier and more nutritious.

Mary Lipande, 59, also sells snacks to school children made from a mixture of cassava and wheat flour. She says with the money she is making she is able to help her husband meet the needs of the family including school fees for their two children in secondary school, clothing, adequate shelter and health care.

“Today, I do not wait for my husband to do everything. He only contributes,’ she says laughing.

They are both members of Wambato farmers group (Wakulima wa Mhogo Bagamoyo Tongwe ‘Cassava Farmers of Bagamoyo Tongwe’) that is involved in growing and processing cassava. The group has been a beneficiary of initiatives by the national roots and tuber research programme of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Sokoine University of Agriculture and IITA’s Unleashing the Power of the Cassava in Africa (UPOCA), all in Tanzania.

According to Tabu Maghembe, the extension officer from the Ministry of Agriculture who trained Christine, Mary and their fellow group members on production of various products and recipes using the high quality cassava flour, people in the village now prefer the chapati and mandazi made from the composite flour which are tastier and more nutritious.

In 2009, under UPOCA, Maghembe was trained on the production of the high quality cassava flour and on products and recipes for the flour. A follow up training focussed on quality control and safety issues and on packaging and marketing. She faithfully passed on all the new knowledge to the group.

‘We were also trained how to make the cassava products more nutritious by adding soybean flour to provide protein. However, in Tongwa village, since we do not have the soybean, we substitute with eggs, milk and dried fish,” she said.

The group has a well equipped cassava processing centre constructed by Sokoine University of Agriculture in 2007 in response to the groups cry for lack of markets for their cassava. This in turn was a result of the rapid adoption of new high yielding cassava varieties introduced by the roots and tubers programme of the ministry of Agriculture as all the local varieties were under attack by the deadly cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

According to John Msemo, the country manager for the UPOCA project in Tanzania, they were impressed by the group’s hard work and initiative and decided to continue to build their capacity from where the ministry and the university had left.

He says he is also happy with the way the group members have put into practice everything they have learnt. For instance, the group was now drying the grated cassava on raised racks and spread on polythene bags where as before they were drying them on the ground spread on palm mats risking contamination from dust and domestic animals.

The result today is a group whose members are enjoying a greatly improved standard of living from the good income made from the sale of high quality cassava flour to supermarkets and shops in Morogoro and Dar es Salaam as well as around the village.

Maghembe says before the trainings, the group was processing 500kgs of fresh cassava roots per month. But now as a result of improvement in the flour quality, better packaging, and marketing skills learnt, they are processing five to six tonnes per month and selling at 800 Tshs/kg (0.5USD).

UPoCA project funded by USAID is in response to the 2008 food crisis in Africa and promotes cassava as an engine for rural economic growth and improving livelihoods with spill over benefits to urban populations. It is being implemented in seven countries in Africa: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Voices from 5th World Cowpea Research Conference

The Fifth World Cowpea Research Conference ended last week in Saly, Senegal,
with more than 140 scientists discussing the state of the art in cowpea research.
Below are excerpts of interviews with scientists at the conference, which IITA
organized with the Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), Dry Grain
Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program, and Purdue University.
For more information about the conference, please go to: http://cowpea2010.iita.org/

Today, we have a lot of scientific tools that give us results that we would never have dreamed of … Pure science is fine but it becomes more important when applied in the field.—Lakshmi Menon, IITA

This conference is important because we are talking about food security in Africa. We are taking stock, addressing challenges facing cowpea, and charting a way forward because we are in research not just for the sake of it but how it can benefit the farmers.—Jacob Mignouna, AATF

The molecular tools being developed in advanced labs should be put into the hands of African scientists and breeders…I would hope that people go home with a lot of optimism on the future of the work that is being discussed.— Edwin Southern, Kirkhouse Trust

A diet has to be diverse. Our bodies don’t make protein, so we need to eat protein and plants (legumes) are the primary sources of protein. In developed countries, meat is preferred but the poor cannot afford it. So a large percentage of the world depends on pulses for their protein. The rich also need pulses because they promote health.
Cowpea is a neglected crop. I don’t know the reason for that. It is an unknown crop and donors do not appreciate the value of cowpea in the diets of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and South America.
We hope that the proceedings from this conference will help change donor perception about cowpea. More importantly, this conference provides the opportunity for people to interact and talk to each other and to prioritize which technology is important for the benefit of our farmers. – Irv Widders, CRSP

There is progress in cowpea research towards improving productivity, resistance to pest and diseases, and post harvest handling… So, cowpea has a big role to play in agricultural development not only in West and Central Africa but also in other parts of the world. Cowpea is a profitable crop, it is good for food security, and has the positive benefit of improving soil quality. —J. Lowenberg-DeBoer, Purdue University

On Bt cowpea: The result of the confined trial of Bt cowpea in northern Nigeria indicated that the gene which was used in transforming IT86D-1010 is very efficient against the insect pest. We discovered that the transgenic material did not sustain any damage on their pods as opposed to serious damage on untransformed material. This means increase in productivity with accompanying increase in the incomes of local farmers in the future when the variety will be adopted. Depending on the level of infestation, this could mean an increase of between 25 and 40% grain yield.
The issue of transgenics should not be viewed in isolation.
Transgenic crops have been consumed in other parts of the world and the people consuming these crops are human beings like us. The gene in question has been used in maize and other crops and has been consumed with no adverse reactions on humans or the environment, so we should not be an exception.—Mohammed Ishiyaku, Institute of Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria

Monday, October 4, 2010

Scientists create a banana Wiki

Soon all information on banana in Africa including the banana growing areas, yield, socio-economic status of the farmers and spread of pests and diseases will be available at the click of a mouse thanks to a recently launched website (http://banana.mappr.info) that anybody working on the crop can contribute to.
The website, developed by Philippe Rieffel a student of Science in applied Geography at the University of Muenster, Germany under supervision of scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), hopes to make a wide range of reliable spatial information on banana readily available to researchers, policy makers and development workers.
According to Hein Bouwmeester, a GIS specialist with IITA, currently the website is focusing on banana-growing areas in Africa but if successful, will expand to include the whole world.
He said the website was developed entirely with open source software and uses ‘crowdsourcing’ to build onto an existing geo-database.
“The idea behind ‘crowdsourcing’ is that currently no accurate geospatial data on bananas in Africa exist, so the platform will ‘outsource’ these data from the ‘crowd’ of local experts in Africa,” he said. "The core of the website is the editor that enables a user to view and edit banana growing areas and define their characteristics."
To guarantee accuracy and reliability, the site's creators will regularly check and correct the database. The current database and all approved previous versions can be downloaded by anyone, either as a GIS shapefile, a text file or a customized premade map.
According to Bouwmeester, the website is important as it will allow information to be shared across projects and organizations for research and development work.
The platform comes in handy as scientists are grappling with the spread of two deadly diseases that are ravaging the crop and threatening the livelihoods of millions farmers. These are the Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) and the viral Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD).
One such scientist, Dr Fen Beed, an IITA plant pathologist lauded the initiative and encouraged researchers and development workers to share information on the platform to make it an information power house on banana.
’The more people with experience of local, national and regional banana production and its constraints contribute to the website, the more robust the data housed in this website will be,’ he said.
The data can be used as a baseline reference to monitor the impact of any interventions or changes in practice such as disease control strategies.